Jewish Journal

How to win the foreign policy debate? Go domestic

by Jonah Lowenfeld

October 19, 2012 | 10:08 am

For Republican Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, the inherent peril of the third and final debate’s focus on foreign policy is obvious.

“All he has is speeches,” my colleague Shmuel Rosner writes in this week’s Jewish Journal cover story, a formulation that sounds ironically similar to the very attack Republicans like to level against President Barack Obama. Aaron David Miller, in a recent article in Foreign Policy, notes that the argument Romney has to make – that he’ll be markedly better than the man he’s seeking to replace – is a “counterfactual” one. He won’t point to his stint as Governor to illustrate his experience abroad  (because you can’t see Russia from Massachusetts), and pointing to policies by way of illustration is tough, too, because his policies on significant international issues often don’t differ much from the President’s.

So, what we can expect from Romney on Monday night is a bit more of what we’ve seen already. He’ll probably have polished the attack he used (clumsily, yes) in the town hall debate, when he assailed Obama for his administration’s response to the murder of four Americans in Libya. Romney will likely also take on Obama for having “apologized for America,” a cliché that even the Wall Street Journal editorial board is tired of.

Though it’s less apparent, there’s peril lurking in the foreign policy debate for Obama, too – but it’s a strategic peril. Could Obama clean up on Monday night simply by claiming credit for ending the war in Iraq, drawing down the American military’s presence in Afghanistan and killing Osama Bin Laden? Maybe, but even if he gets a “win,” the impact will be blunted, in part because the debate over foreign policy matters less to voters (polls show they’re making their decisions based on economic issues) and in part because unlike the first and second debates (which 67 and 65.6 million people watched, respectively), at least a few (million) Americans are going to be tuning out the candidates and watching the Lions and Bears instead.

If the challenges are different – Romney has to make a strong showing on a subject where he’s at a disadvantage; Obama needs to retroactively win a more significant debate that he already lost a few weeks ago – the answer for both candidates is the same.

Go domestic. No matter the question, the candidates would do well to treat every one of those 90 minutes as an opportunity to get back to the issues most likely to be driving votes in November by connecting foreign policy to the economy and healthcare.

For Romney, the central argument should be that the biggest obstacle to continued American leadership in the world is the sluggish recovery of the American economy. Accusing Obama of mismanaging the world’s most powerful economy – thereby weakening the world’s only true superpower – might be the challenger’s best line of attack. It gets to what people care about and harks back to Romney’s strong suit, his business experience.

On Monday, Obama needs to do the exact same thing, and answer questions about foreign policy in ways that remind voters about the unease they have about Romney and his domestic policies.

Imagine how each candidate could address a question about the Middle East, for example.

Romney could quickly deliver his piece about how the President has distanced the United States from its allies and then say something to the effect of, “Our allies around the world are strongest when we are strongest at home. Any President has to be able to do more than one thing at a time, sure, but this President went on a world tour when he should’ve been busy in Washington creating jobs, which is what I intend to do from my very first day in office. When world leaders need me, they’ll know where to find me – working to put American people back to work, every single day.”

Obama’s argument would have to be that Romney has made so many conflicting statements over the last seven years he’s been running for President (Will he “recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state,” as he said at the Virginia Military Institute earlier this month? Or will he just “kick the can,” as he was recorded as saying in the “47 percent” video this summer?) that neither allies abroad nor voters at home know enough about him to trust him.

“Where does my opponent stand on the challenging issues facing this country and the world? We don’t know,” Obama could say. “Our allies can’t tell what kind of foreign policy he’ll pursue any more than Americans can tell you which tax loopholes he’ll close, because Mr. Romney has offered no details.”

Take the foreign and make it domestic – that’s the task facing Obama and Romney next week. Because when Election Day rolls around, voters are almost certainly going to be thinking about how this election will affect them at home more than how it might affect their country’s standing abroad.

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