Live-Blogging 2012 Presidential Debate #3: In Boca Raton, with Bob Schieffer

A man…a plan…a pants: Matthew Fox!

10:34 pm: “Go vote,” Bob Schieffer says, as is his wont invoking the words of his beloved mother, “It’ll make you feel big and strong!”

10:23 pm: …And in the last 7 minutes, Mitt thinks it would be a good idea to close-out by clarifying exactly what he meant when he said Detroit should go through a managed bankruptcy–after a broad consensus emerged that the President’s bailout of Detroit succeeded.

10:16 pm: On the question “What is the greatest threat to national security?” President Obama identifies the hollowing-out of the American middle class.  He defends his record of building up American comparative advantage (think bailout of the Detroit car companies, job-retraining programs to relocate workers out-bid by free trade).  Governor Romney makes a circumspect version of his previous attacks on Chinese mercantilism (an artificially-low-value currency, tolerance of copyright violations, hoarding of resources), all of which is quite true but which we tolerate both because American businesses think China is too big of a market to ignore, and which will overburden our efforts to achieve Chinese cooperation on other foreign policy priorities.  Romney has brought up a number of important issues and fair points during this debate, and the President has repeatedly clarified the progress made on these issues by his incremental, rarely-sexy but well-designed and consensus-driven foreign policy motions, and he has taken the Governor to task for strong-sounding policy alternatives that increasingly look built on sand.

10:13 pm: Governor Romney applauds the President’s handling of the Libya operation, his undertaking of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, and his aggressive use of air power to rout al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Yemen.  Based on the foreign policy Debate (at least when Governor Romney has seen fit to address foreign policy), it sounds like he should be prepared to vote for President Obama.

10:08 pm: President Obama has taken his own turn to shift the substance of the debate, moving on from a defense of his timetable for our troop drawdown from Afghanistan (which Afghans seem ready for) to promote an oft-unsung domestic policy achievement of his: New and ground-breaking programs to assist our war veterans in their re-acclimation to civilian life, whether it be in medical rehabilitation, psychological services, or job training and placement programs for veterans to address their relatively-high unemployment rate.

President Obama’s pivot was better, and Governor Romney really has nothing to say in response.  Again, it’s been surreal to see the Republican Party so utterly abandon any and all care and consideration for the military personnel Governor Romney has so often expressed a readiness to deploy.

10:04 pm: Just a passing thought I’ve made to friends–I see this as a fatally-weak finish for Romney. I just don’t know how else to interpret what we’re seeing right now.

9:57 pm: Governor Romney says darkly that “Iran is 4 years closer to a nuclear weapon.”  Would this be a good time to double-down on the fact that the Islamic Republic of Iran has expressed a desire to come to the table and discuss terms over its uranium-enrichment program as soon as the Presidential contest is settled?  President Obama has already noted  that the sanctions have visibly stunted Iran’s economy, making the government desperate to maintain social safety net spending and patronage to appease its working class.  President Ahmadinejad has been brash and even alarming in his bluster in the past, but with the talk of war at play these days in both Israel and the United States, where is he now?  Going by appearances, at least, they are indeed preparing to back down.

9:49 pm: Governor Romney has promised to indict Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad through the United Nations Genocide Convention, implicitly for his Holocaust denial and his statement of his desire to see Israel “wiped off the map.”  The Genocide Convention was adopted by the United Nations in 1948 to punish acts of genocide by a state.  A leader’s comments, however disturbing, are not its purview, nor are they meant to be.  This is a subject I have some practical understanding of.  So, what the hell is he talking about?

9:40 pm: Governor Romney’s attempt to retreat to his budget and economy castle has backfired; the President seems to have followed him over the drawbridge into the keep.  He retreated into his tax plan; the President noted–without refutation–that the Governor’s proposed income tax rate cuts would be a $5 trillion tax cut and require harsh deduction cuts on the middle and working class to offset the deepening of the deficit.  The President’s counterattack on Romney’s proposed military buildup is fantastic: He pithily notes that he opposes the sequester cuts to Defense spending as much as Governor Romney does, and that he will work-out a deal so that it does not happen.  He then says that the US Navy is not part of a game of Battleship in which strength is assessed by how many ships you have.  In effect, he has told the Governor to his face that his military spending plan implies he doesn’t know what a strong military looks like, and that he has this.

9:34 pm: Governor Romney is dwelling on his 5-point economic plan.  He sounds like he has coolly assessed his prospects in a foreign policy debate, and simply doesn’t have powerful criticisms or an alternative foreign policy agenda to offer.  That’s fair; maybe a President Romney would know enough to maintain those policies of the President that have been successful and helps the United States conserve its strength.  (Granted, Governor Romney’s disturbing train of ham-fisted Neoconservative foreign policy…advisers suggest this may be too much to hope for, but the point is that he at least sounds like he aspires to the same goals that President Obama is…well, achieving.)

Bob Schieffer finally tries to corral the candidates back to the foreign policy debate…but they out-vote him!  He doesn’t seem to feel strongly that the debate should focus on a scheduled topic rather than one preferred by “popular demand.”

9:27 pm: Right now President Obama and Governor Romney are having a rational debate.  Governor Romney focuses on general principles, and President Obama extensively defends his tactical choices against critics who think he hasn’t been a forceful advocate for a US position in foreign affairs.  So far I think President Obama is winning this debate, because Governor Romney is attacking him with his heart.  He sounds like his heart is in the right place, but President Obama sounds like his head is in the right place.  So far there are no clear differences in policy goals–no clear differences in policy goals–between the President and his challenger.  Note what I just called them; so far the debate mostly flows as though an earnest critic is getting an education from a sympathetic President who is doing the best that can be done in a currently-unpredictable international system.

9:18 pm: Governor Romney starts his discussion of Syria mentioning 30,000 dead Syrians in the civil war since March 2011, calling it “a humanitarian disaster.”  I’m giving the Governor that one, as I’ve had a burning desire for us to do something for the people of Syria living in fear of a desperately-flailing government for about a year.  I’m glad he chose to mention that 1st.

President Obama offers a fair defense, however: We are engaged in the civil war in Syria.  Arming the rebels was a step we didn’t even take in Libya–the Rebels seized Gaddafi’s arsenals and were strengthened by many defections from the Libyan Army–as in both Syria and Libya it could have led to weapons transfers to Islamist terrorists or other militants.  We are building a diplomatic coalition against Assad and providing humanitarian assistance to mitigate the impacts of the civil war in Syria however possible.  The President sees Bashar al-Assad as a murderer and a tyrant, and believes he must depart; this puts him on the side of a revolutionary mainstream in Syria by default.  He contrasts the Syria question from our intervention in Libya on the grounds that a massacre in Benghazi–a city as large as San Francisco–was virtually certain at the time we threw-in with the Rebels in mid-March 2011.

9:15 pm: President Obama has scooped Governor Romney’s attack against him on his policy towards the State of Israel, calling it “a true friend and ally in the region.”  The President seems more on his toes this time; I thought the President had a substantive advantage going into this debate as the sitting Commander-in-Chief with considerable foreign policy achievements, but the energy seems nearly reversed from Debate #1, almost as if that was simply the debate Governor Romney wanted to have, and this debate is simply the one the President wanted to have, and it’s that simple.

9:04-9:12 pm: Governor Romney opens lightly, with a joke: Referring to a cordial comedic event he and President Obama attended last week, he informs the audience that there is a fair chance of unintentional but equally-solid comedy tonight.  He criticizes the President’s grasp on the Benghazi attack, but he pulls his punch.  He applauds the President’s actions leading up to the killing of Osama bin Laden.  He seems to have decided grace and fair play will give him more solid ground as he builds his case against the President and for himself.

The President talks his own accomplishments up–particularly his administration’s campaign against al-Qaeda but with Libya’s shaky but forward political movement as well.  The Governor and the President are agreed! the President has serious foreign policy accomplishments.

It’s interesting to watch: The national Republican party has done much to earn a reputation as the party of nasty, but Governor Romney has at least made an early indication that he wants to shore-up his image as a statesmanlike public figure.  We’re just 12 minutes in, but I’m not sure it’s profiting him.

At the moment, in the context of this debate at least, the President’s defense of his foreign policy record towards the Middle East appears fortress-like.  It isn’t elegant, but it nonetheless looks impenetrable.

9:03 pm: Bob Schieffer asks about Libya 1st, about the Benghazi terrorist attack against the US Consulate there that killed Ambassador J. Chris Stevens and 3 other Americans working for the State Department.  This question may the embarrassment for the President that refuses to die, but Schieffer literally offers so many ways to answer this question that it’s practically a gift to President Obama, if he can think on his feet.

9:00 pm: On CSpan, which is so wonderfully unfiltered, you can hear TV news reporters sounding-off to their respective nightly news anchors about the immanent opening of the 3rd Presidential Debate.  1 of them calls it “the final face-off;” am I alone in finding that a trivialization of what should be the most-momentous of all consumer choices at the very-least?

8:48 pm: In case anyone doubts that the Presidential Debates serve a positive purpose (which they shouldn’t, frustrations with the substance that sometimes gets addressed aside), Kevin Ross, President of Lynn University, seeks to take the opportunity to put his university on the map.  That’s an aim I can sympathize with; it’s exciting to be a part of a university whose reputation hasn’t yet caught-up with what it has to offer.  (Of course, Lynn will now have to stand up in the light that has been cast on it this evening, but a small liberal arts college has to find its niche somehow.)  Once every 4 years, the Presidential Debates raise awareness of 4 colleges or universities in our expensive but excellent (and crowded) secondary education market.

That said, “Lynn University: It’s what the World is coming to,” would not necessarily be my choice of promotional slogan.

8:44 pm: Frank Fahrenkopf, Co-Chair of the 2012 Commission on Presidential Debates, just thanked the International Bottled Water Association for their sponsorship of this debate.  I hope, but cannot by any means guarantee, that this debate will really pick up in about 15 minutes.

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