It’s an uphill climb for any challenger to debate an incumbent president on foreign policy, as Romney did on Monday. It’s even more unusual for a challenger to hold his own, as Romney did. The Republican faithful have long known their nominee has what it takes to be president, but his performance on Monday likely was a key in persuading many who are less familiar with him that he is a candidate blessed with sufficient knowledge and judgment to perform capably in the Oval Office.
In so doing he undercut an oft-leveled Democratic scare tactic, i.e., that he is a war-monger. Obama would love to have you believe that Romney is itching to bomb Iran, but the Republican pre-empted the president on that one, saying, “I will stand with Israel if they are attacked.”
On a related topic, he said emphatically, “I don’t want to have our troops in Syria.”
He added that we shouldn’t be arming anybody there until we know who it is we are arming.
Rather than repeat his insistence that the U.S. stay on in Afghanistan past 2014, he expressed agreement, perhaps sensing growing public displeasure with the U.S. presence there, with that departure date.
On the controversial question of the administration’s nearly unrestricted drone warfare, Romney said, “I support that entirely and feel the president was right to up the usage of that technology.”
Despite urging from his partisans, Romney passed up a chance to attack Obama in the lethal Benghazi debacle, instead quickly sliding into praise for tracking down and killing Osama bin Laden.
Obama has also been criticized for pressuring pro-U.S. dictator Hosni Mubarak into resigning, although, as Obama pointed out, his brutal repression of young, pro-democracy demonstrators made U.S. support increasingly untenable. Romney added that once anger against the repression exploded, “I felt the same way the president did.”
Over the objections of moderator Bob Schieffer, Obama and Romney kept circling back to domestic issues — the economy, the auto bailout, taxes — subjects clearly of more interest to the candidates and, one suspects, the voters as well. And Romney successfully made the link that a strong national defense is predicated on first having a strong economy, something Obama has been clueless on how to deliver.
Indeed, Obama — without much of a record to brag on — debated on Monday as if he, not Romney, were the challenger. He was on the attack throughout the evening, even descending to a snarky putdown at one point of Romney and the U.S. Navy.
Condescension, thy name is Barack.
The bottom line, though, is that Romney presented himself to voters as a plausible commander-in-chief, despite repeated efforts by Obama to show otherwise.
And that, in turn, might have been enough to edge him from “potential” president to “probable” president. We’ll know in two weeks.