There are two ways to look at presidential debates: the big-theme outlook and the horse-race outlook. Naturally, with elections so tight and so close, most of the commentary and attention will be given to the horse race – who won and who lost, who scored and who stumbled, whose numbers will be soaring and whose will be declining. In many cases – not all – the actual policies espoused by the candidates have no special impact on the horse race score. In the second debate, when Mitt Romney talked about the famous “binders”, it was not problematic policies that he was advocating – it was bad wording.
But one should remember this: The choice between Obama and Romney only matters if their policies are different. Otherwise, it is no more than sport, namely, a meaningless, if highly entertaining, competition between two individuals or teams. To what extent then were the policies presented today by the candidates different? I’d put the many subjects raised today into three main categories:
A. No different except in rhetoric: Iran, Egypt, Syria, Libya.
B. Presumed difference that will vanish if Romney is elected: China.
C. Real difference: Israel-Palestine, Netanyahu.
Short explanation – real explanation will require more time and space as each item is worthy of separate analysis:
A. When Romney says he wants to assist Syrian rebels more vigorously, it is really what Obama also wants to do. When he says he wants more robust sanctions on Iran – that’s Obama’s position. Saying you want “more” of something, or that you want it to be “more successful” doesn’t mean much.
B. All candidates say things that they later come to regret or unceremoniously forget. Remember Obama threatening to invade Pakistan? Bravado is for candidates; restraint is for presidents.
C. They truly look at Israel and the Palestinian problem differently. Obama believed he could solve it. He no longer believes he can, but still thinks that Israel’s intransience is a big part of the problem. Romney doesn’t. And Romney doesn’t have the utter dislike for Israel’s prime minister Obama clearly has (this is not exactly a difference in policy, but it leads to differences in executing policies).
One can’t write about the debate without writing about its main topic - Libya. Here’s how I see it:
Most of the attacks waged by Romney are irrelevant to the presidential race. If there were not enough guards protecting the ambassador that’s a problem. It is also a problem to have too many guards protecting every ambassador, and a problem to assume that whenever an embassy is asking for more manpower the administration must immediately comply. And it is also a problem to assume that the U.S. can have an impact in dangerous places without ever having to have casualties. And it is ridiculous to assume that the president should be personally in charge of protecting embassies around the world.
As for the intelligence reports leading administration officials to believe that the attack was a spontaneous response to the defamatory video – that’s bad. It is proof that the American intelligence community is as hardly as reformed as it should have been following a decade of presumed reforms. But this is no reason to elect Romney or reelect Obama.
Alas, the Obama defense of his actions is also irrelevant to the presidential race. Obama essentially says three things: 1. I said “terror”. 2. We are investigating what happened. 3. The intel was bad.
Excuse number 1 is ingenuous. Using the word “terror” doesn’t erase all the other things that were said by the administration. Excuse number 2 is obvious – investigation does not erase mistakes, it strives to make things better in the future. Excuse number 3 is undignified – blaming the intelligence community is the oldest and most used trick in presidential blunders. Moreover, all these excuses do not answer the fundamental question that was justifiably raised by the Romney team (that they raised it for political gains is obvious and doesn’t make it less pointed): Why does the Obama administration appear trigger-happy when it comes to blaming American actions for world problems - while on most other issues it is usually restrained and even slow in applying blame?
A word about Iran.
Obama bluffs when they talk about Iran. He has to do it, because he can’t say everything he knows about “those reports in the newspapers”. If there is a discreet move aimed at getting Iran to the negotiating table – as one would hope – the president can’t talk about it. If Obama has already decided what will be his “red lines” in future negotiations with Iran – he can’t share them either. For Obama, talking about engagement with Iran is politically problematic, because this was his mantra four years ago and it ended badly. So Obama bluffs. Instead of talking about the things he intends to do (more sanctions, negotiations, hopefully an agreement, and if not, who knows) – he attacks Romney for presumably wanting to involve America in another Middle East war.
Romney of course doesn’t want no such war. And if he becomes president, the most likely strategy he’d pursue is one quite similar to the policy pursued by Obama (including “tightening the sanctions”). With a caveat: Romney believes that his tough talk might make the Iranians more nervous and more prone to talk. This is possible, but it’s also possible that the Iranians will not buy Romney’s hyperbole, and will wait for him to prove his mettle through action. In such a case, his choice will become very similar to the choice Obama is now facing. And we will all see him bluffing his way through, it until the decision on the proper course of action is taken.
Check out Rosner's new book, The Jewish Vote: Obama vs. Romney / A Jewish Voter's Guide