— Louis XIV
“This nation. Me.”
— Barack Obama, third presidential debate
OK, OK. I’ll give you the context. Obama was talking about “when Tunisians began to protest, this nation, me, my administration, stood with them.” Still. How many democratic leaders (de Gaulle excluded) would place the word “me” in such regal proximity to the word “nation”?
Obama would have made a very good Bourbon. He’s certainly not a very good debater. He showed it again Monday night.
Obama lost. His tone was petty and small. Arguing about Iran’s nuclear program, he actually said to Mitt Romney, “While we were coordinating an international coalition to make sure these sanctions were effective, you were still invested in a Chinese state oil company that was doing business with the Iranian oil sector.” You can’t get smaller than that. You’d expect this in a city council race. But only from the challenger. The sitting councilman would find such an ad hominem beneath him.
That spirit led Obama into a major unforced error. When Romney made a perfectly reasonable case to rebuild a shrinking Navy, Obama condescended: “You mentioned ... that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed.”
Such that naval vessels are as obsolete as horse cavalry?
Liberal pundits got a great guffaw out of this, but the underlying argument is quite stupid. As if the ships being retired are dinghies, skipjacks and three-masted schooners. As if an entire branch of the armed forces — the principal projector of American power abroad — is itself some kind of anachronism.
“We have these things called aircraft carriers,” continued the schoolmaster, “where planes land on them.”
This is Obama’s case for fewer vessels? Does he think carriers patrol alone? He doesn’t know that for every one carrier, 10 times as many ships sail in a phalanx of escorts?
Obama may blithely dismiss the need for more ships, but the Navy wants at least 310 and the latest Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel report says that defending America’s vital interests requires 346 ships (versus 287 today). Does anyone doubt that if we continue, as we are headed, down to fewer than 230, the casualty will be entire carrier battle groups, precisely the kind of high-tech force multipliers that Obama pretends our national security requires?
Romney, for his part, showed himself to be fluent enough in foreign policy, although I could have done with a little less Mali (two references) and a lot less “tumult” (five).
But he did have the moment of the night when he took after Obama’s post-inauguration world apology tour. Obama, falling back on his base, flailingly countered that “every fact checker and every reporter” says otherwise.
Oh yeah? What about Obama declaring that America had “dictated” to other nations?
“Mr. President,” said Romney, “America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators.”
Obama, rattled, went off into a fog beginning with “if we’re going to talk about trips that we’ve taken,” followed by a rambling travelogue of a 2008 visit to Israel. As if this is about trip-taking, rather than about defending — versus denigrating — the honor of the United States while on foreign soil. Americans may care little about Syria and nothing about Mali. But they don’t like presidents going abroad confirming the calumnies of tin-pot dictators.
The rest of Romney’s debate performance was far more passive. He refused the obvious chance to pulverize Obama on Libya. I would’ve taken a baseball bat to Obama’s second-debate claim that no one in his administration, including him, had misled the country on Benghazi. (The misleading is beyond dispute. The only question is whether it was intentional, i.e. deliberate deceit, or unintentional, i.e. scandalous incompetence.) Romney, however, calculated differently: Act presidential. Better use the night to assume a reassuring, non-contentious demeanor.
Romney’s entire strategy in both the second and third debates was to reinforce the status he achieved in debate No. 1 as a plausible alternative president. He therefore went bipartisan, accommodating, above the fray and, above all, nonthreatening.
That’s what Reagan did with Carter in their 1980 debate. If your opponent’s record is dismal and the country quite prepared to toss him out — but not unless you pass the threshold test — what do you do?
Romney chose to do a Reagan: Don’t quarrel. Speak softly. Meet the threshold.
We’ll soon know whether steady-as-she-goes was the right choice.
Dr. Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for The Washington Post.