Two esteemed observers of U.S. politics will provide live assessments of the four presidential and vice-presidential debates for the Globe and Mail. The author, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist David Shribman, writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he is executive editor. Journalist and speechwriter John O’Sullivan is a writer and editor-at-large of the conservative magazine the National Review.
Could this election be any closer? Former Governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama tangled Monday against the backdrop of the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll showing the two men deadlocked at 47 per cent. They exchanged digs, broke little new ground, repeated familiar talking points. And when they were done, there was every reason to believe the contest would be deadlocked two weeks later, when most Americans are to go to the polls and choose their president.
This confrontation in Boca Raton, Fla., was the third 90-minute exchange between the two, and when it was completed there could hardly be an American alive who yearned for a fourth and very likely hardly an American voter who switched sides. The two candidates, whose appeals and attacks have filled American television sets (and computer screens) for weeks, seemed scripted if not downright stale.
The evening was predictable and pedestrian, without the Obama sizzle of debate No. 2 nor the snoozy Mr. Obama of debate No. 1, qualities that underline the character of this election and most others in which an incumbent president is seeking a second term: The challenger must make the most of the opportunity presented by a contest that is implicitly a referendum on the occupant of the White House even as he struggles to win a hearing, and approval, for his proposals and his profile as a potential president.
For that reason it was no surprise to see Mr. Obama emphasize his status as the experienced steward of foreign policy, the incumbent’s natural advantage. And it wasn’t astonishing to witness Mr. Romney repeatedly trying to steer the conversation to the economy, the challenger’s natural advantage at a time of economic distress.
There was some agreement. Both concurred with the continued use of drones in the fight against terrorism. Not every American agrees, but these two did. Mr. Obama called America the “indispensable nation” and Mr. Romney characterized the United States as “the hope of the earth.” Not everyone across the world agrees, but these two did.
But most of the evening they did fight fiercely. Mr. Obama jabbed at his rival, saying “you haven’t been in a position” to exercise foreign policy. Mr. Romney mounted an offensive of his own, telling the president that “attacking me is not an agenda.” There was more. Mr. Romney jibed that the president had undertaken an “apology tour” that projected weakness rather than strength abroad. Mr. Obama threw a dig at his opponent, saying that when he took a pre-presidential foreign trip he didn’t, as Mr. Romney did, take big donors along.
American elections very rarely are decided on foreign policy, the theme of this debate; the few modern exceptions are 1940 and 1944 and perhaps 1952 and 1980. Both candidates characterized the economy as a threat to national security, which gave them a chance to reprise some of their well-rehearsed lines from their stump speeches.
For minutes on end, the debate seemed to be a cable re-run of a syndicated television program. Mr. Romney said China was a currency manipulator and a world-trade cheater. Mr. Obama said that under his leadership America is more respected abroad than it was when he took office four years ago. Those who have followed this campaign attentively surely rolled their eyes in recognition of these old chestnuts, roasted again in the Florida heat.
And so the debate was thoroughly unremarkable, though it is safe to say that this was the first time the nation Mali has ever been employed in a nationally televised political debate. Mr. Romney introduced Mali twice, though he failed to transform the West African nation into the 2012 version of Quemoy and Matsu, the two Chinese islands that were a point of contention between Vice-President Richard M. Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy in 1960.
So now a moment of relief. We’re well and truly done with the debates. A grateful nation breathes a sigh of satisfaction. It’s only a fortnight till the election. Bring it on. Time to stop the talking, time to start the deciding.
David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist who has followed U.S. Politics for more than 30 years for the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Boston Globe, is the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.