At the conclusion of last night’s last presidential debate, which focused on foreign policy, noted foreign-policy wonk and former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin appeared on Fox News to deliver her expert analysis.
“There were so many untruths spewed by Obama tonight. Unfortunately, Romney just didn’t have time to answer them all,” Palin opined, adding that she sure does wish the media would call out Barack Obama on all his lies.
On his pre-debate show earlier in the evening, Fox host Bill O’Reilly posed his own dim view of the president. “Many, including Governor Romney, believe that President Obama’s foreign policy has weakened America and emboldened our enemies,” according to O’Reilly.
Given the way Palin and O’Reilly framed it, you might think the debate pitted two men who hold extraordinarily diverging viewpoints. But the main difference between them, as it turned out, was the size of their lapel pins.
Recall that in the 2008 campaign, Obama had briefly resisted wearing a flag pin on the basis that it’s a cheap and empty expression of patriotism (not his actual words), before buckling under the pressure. And last night the grand old flag was pinned to both men’s jackets, as always. But Romney’s was just a bit bigger and bolder.
“My flag is bigger,” seems to be Romney’s general strategy at this point. That is, he accepts Obama’s ideas and policies, but promises to supersize them. Obama is a friend of Israel? Israel and I are totally BFF! Obama has increased defense spending every year? I’ll increase it by two trillion dollars!
Romney’s problem in trying to distinguish himself on foreign policy is that the main line of attack he anticipated using against Obama—the recent attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Libya that resulted in the murder of four Americans—has fizzled. Though Republicans have tried hard for weeks to gain traction with the issue, accusing the administration of incompetence (or worse) and a cover-up, the tragedy is too distant to be a game-changer. And the Obama administration’s defense of its behavior has mostly held up under the GOP’s scrutiny.
If the issue resonated, Libya would no doubt have been the centerpiece of an argument for a more hawkish foreign policy. But Romney barely touched the subject. Instead, he made the obligatory noises about being tough on Iran and then went the Obama-plus route. Obama believes in building strategic alliances? Me too—but more so!
Maybe the most startling moment of the night was hearing Romney talk about building the civic infrastructure of foreign nations, about the importance of fostering education and gender equality in the Middle East, and about working with our allies in the region. A Republican hasn’t talked like that since George W. Bush, who, in a presidential debate 12 years ago this month, said, “If we’re an arrogant nation, [other nations will] resent us. ... And our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that’s why we’ve got to be humble, and yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom.”
Well, we know how that worked out.
Did Bush ever mean those words about humility? Did Romney mean his words about cooperation last night? If appearances are any indication, Romney seems more comfortable in the guise of conciliator than hawk; while for Bush, the post-9/11 warmongering and “they hate us for our freedom” speeches seemed to come naturally.
It might have been a winning strategy if Romney had sold himself as Obama-plus all along, somehow managing to win the Republican primary as a healer. But it seems like a dubious strategy at this point. It’s hard to imagine that it made Palin and O’Reilly and their ilk happy, hearing their candidate bill himself as a slightly enhanced version of a man they disdain as a serial liar and a denier of American exceptionalism.
From the progressive perspective, meantime, it's a litle discouraging that it's so easy for Romney to become one with the Democrats on foreign policy. Simply by adding a touch of dove to his hawkishness, Romney can make himself almost indistinguishable from Obama.
No doubt this latest version of Romney makes perfect sense in the world that he has constructed inside his own mind, where there must be some grand unified theory that reconciles all the shape-shifting and contradictions that define his political career.
What would he actually do, though, with the power of the presidency? Would he be an enhanced Obama or another Bush? Something else? Which version of himself would emerge is probably as much a mystery to Romney, at this point, as it is to everyone else. One prays we’ll never find out.