Winner: Barack Obama
Scores: Obama 74 | Romney 73
Judge: Andy Hume
Barack Obama emerged as a narrow winner from the third and last Presidential debate, but the casual viewer may have been the loser after watching a pretty uninspiring 90 minutes that was long on rhetoric and consensus, short on genuine clash or any nuanced analysis of foreign policy issues.
There was, at least, an interesting clash of styles and tactics from the two candidates. President Obama spent the debate on the attack, as he had in the second debate the previous week. Time and again he used his answers to launch criticisms of his opponent and portray him as inconsistent and inexperienced in this field. Some of the blows landed – his line about “fewer horses and bayonets” was easily the best of the night – but in general the approach was, in my view, less successful than it had been in the previous contest; his negative rhetoric sometimes seemed inappropriate to the topic under discussion, his fixed stare at his rival showing little warmth.
On manner, Mitt Romney seemed to have the upper hand. He was notably conciliatory, speaking in softer tones than his opponent, even his harsher criticisms of Obama modulated by his demeanour. If he was trying to project the “presidential” image so beloved of advisors and debate coaches, he broadly succeeded. Despite a touch of Nixonian sweatiness in the later stages, I scored him slightly higher on style than Obama.
Separating the debaters on matter was harder. This was largely down to the fact that there was very little actual clash between arguments. Time and again – on Syria, Pakistan, China and Israel – there was no substantive disagreement between them. Both candidates attempted at times to create differences between their approaches to these foreign policy issues, but they were unpersuasive; the central message seemed to be that both men would pursue much the same policies, but pursue them better. This made for long stretches in the debate where there was little for the casual observer to relish, and unsurprisingly, both candidates tried to pivot to domestic policy talking points that they believed, probably correctly, would be of more interest to undecided voters.
It was noticeable that while Obama came out on the attack, Romney time and again chose to hug his opponent close, eschewing the opportunity to put genuine distance between himself and the Democrat and painting himself as the epitome of peace and moderation. This is probably smart politics, but it left him with very little to say. With the exception of a very effective soundbite on the Middle East (“America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictatorship.”) he landed very few punches on Obama. Several of Romney’s responses also left the listener with as many questions as answers, presenting a muddled and contradictory message on Syria, Pakistan and especially China, where he combined conciliatory language about partnership with his oft-repeated promise to label them as “currency manipulators” on day one.
Neither candidate did a very good job of persuasion. Running against an incumbent, however, Romney had the opportunity to present clear and substantive differences of policy between himself and his opponent, and for the most part he failed to do so. Despite his slight edge on manner, and the inadequacies of Obama’s performance, I score an uninspiring debate as a very marginal win for the President.