Mitt Romney gave a risk-avoiding performance last night, one rather obviously designed to maintain his current position in the race. His approach was extremely conservative in its restraint, as Paul notes (and I agree), but I thought Romney nevertheless landed the better punches. Indeed, I thought that Romney threw just about all of the knock-out punches in the debate (transcript here). All in all, an impressive performance.
I thought Barack Obama turned in an aggressive and scrappy performance. I inferred that he believes he’s down and has to do something about it. He threw several low blows last night, such as his false description of Romney’s approach to the auto bailout, although Romney was prepared to cover the blow on this point. And Obama threw one knockout blow that he landed firmly on himself (video below).
Winner on my scorecard: Romney. (I would concede that my partisanship may be misleading me and that Paul may have the better view. Don’t miss his take, which I also agree with as far as it goes.)
Here are what I assess to be Romney’s knockout blows. I thought this was the first one, in response to Obama’s statement of Romney’s position on Russia:
First of all, Russia, I indicated, is a geopolitical foe, not —
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Number one —
MR. ROMNEY: Excuse me. It’s a geopolitical foe. And I said in the same — in the same paragraph, I said, and Iran is the greatest national security threat we face. Russia does continue to battle us in the U.N. time and time again. I have clear eyes on this. I’m not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia or Mr. Putin, and I’m certainly not going to say to him, I’ll give you more flexibility after the election. After the election he’ll get more backbone.
Well, I — I absolutely believe that America has a — a responsibility and the privilege of helping defend freedom and promote the principles that — that make the world more peaceful. And those principles include human rights, human dignity, free enterprise, freedom of expression, elections, because when there are elections, people tend to vote for peace. They don’t vote for war. So we want to — to promote those principles around the world. We recognize that there are places of conflict in the world. We want to end those conflicts to the extent humanly possible. But in order to be able to fulfill our role in the world, America must be strong. America must lead.
And for that to happen, we have to strengthen our economy here at home. You can’t have 23 million people struggling to get a job. You — you can’t have an economy that over the last three years keeps slowing down its growth rate. You can’t have kids coming out of college, half of whom can’t find a job today, or a job that’s commensurate with their college degree. We have to get our economy going.
And our military — we’ve got to strengthen our military long- term. We don’t know what the world is going to throw at us down the road. We — we make decisions today in a military that — that will confront challenges we can’t imagine.
In the 2000 debates there was no mention of terrorism, for instance. And a year later, 9/11 happened. So we have to make decisions based upon uncertainty. And that means a strong military. I will not cut our military budget.
We have to also stand by our allies. I think the tension that existed between Israel and the United States was very unfortunate. I think also that pulling our missile defense program out of Poland in the way we was also unfortunate in terms of, if you will, disrupting the relationship in some ways that existed between us.
And then of course, with regards to standing for our principles, when — when the students took to the streets in Tehran and the people there protested, the Green Revolution occurred. For the president to be silent I thought was an enormous mistake. We have to stand for our principles, stand for our allies, stand for a strong military and stand for a stronger economy.
One more, on getting our house in order and strengthening our defenses:
Bob, I’m pleased that I’ve balanced budgets. I was in the world of business for 25 years.
If you didn’t balance your budget, you went out of business. I went to the Olympics that was out of balance, and we got it on balance and made a success there. I had the chance to be governor of a state. Four years in a row, Democrats and Republicans came together to balance the budget. We cut taxes 19 times, balanced our budget. The president hasn’t balanced a budget yet. I expect to have the opportunity to do so myself.
I — I’m going to be able to balance the budget. Let’s talk about military spending, and that’s this. Our Navy —
MR. SCHIEFFER: About 30 seconds.
MR. ROMNEY: Our Navy is older — excuse me — our Navy is smaller now than any time since 1917. The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We’re now down to 285. We’re headed down to the — to the low 200s if we go through with sequestration. That’s unacceptable to me. I want to make sure that we have the ships that are required by our Navy.
Our Air Force is older and smaller than any time since it was founded in 1947. We’ve changed for the first time since FDR. We — since FDR we had the — we’ve always had the strategy of saying we could fight in two conflicts at once. Now we’re changing to one conflict.
Look, this, in my view, is the highest responsibility of the president of the United States, which is to maintain the safety of the American people. And I will not cut our military budget by a trillion dollars, which is the combination of the budget cuts that the president has as well as the sequestration cuts. That, in my view, is — is — is making our future less certain and less secure. I won’t do it.
On Iran, I accorded Obama a standing eight-count after Romney’s comments on the administration’s missteps with the mullahs:
I think from the very beginning, one of the challenges we’ve had with Iran is that they have looked at this administration and — and felt that the administration was not as strong as it needed to be. I think they saw weakness where they had expected to find American strength.
And I say that because from the very beginning, the president, in his campaign some four years ago, said he’d meet with all the world’s worst actors in his first year. He’d — he’d sit down with Chavez and — and Kim Jong-Il, with Castro and with — with President Ahmadinejad of — of Iran. And — and I think they looked and thought, well, that’s an unusual honor to receive from the president of the United States.
And then the president began what I’ve called an apology tour of going to — to various nations in the Middle East and — and criticizing America. I think they looked at that and saw weakness. Then when there were dissidents in the streets of Tehran, the Green Revolution, holding signs saying, is America with us, the president was silent. I think they noticed that as well. And I think that when the president said he was going to create daylight between ourselves and Israel that — that they noticed that as well.
All of these things suggested, I think, to the Iranian mullahs that, hey, you know, we can keep on pushing along here; we can keep talks going on, but we’re just going to keep on spinning centrifuges. Now there are some 10,000 centrifuges spinning uranium, preparing to — to create a — a — a — – a nuclear threat to the United States and to the world.
That’s unacceptable for us, and — and — and it’s essential for a president to show strength from the very beginning to make it very clear what is acceptable and not acceptable. And an Iranian nuclear program is not acceptable to us. They must not develop nuclear capability. And the way to make sure they understand that is by having from the very beginning the tightest sanctions possible. They need to be tightened. Our diplomatic isolation needs to be tougher. We need to indict Ahmadinejad. We need to put the pressure on them as hard as we possibly can, because if we do that, we won’t have to take the military action.
Romney followed up with another haymaker:
We’re four years closer to a nuclear Iran. We’re four years closer to a nuclear Iran. And — and we should not have wasted these four years to the extent they’ve — they continue to be able to spin these centrifuges and get that much closer. That’s number one.
Number two, Mr. President, the reason I call it an apology tour is because you went to the Middle East and you flew to — to Egypt and to Saudi Arabia and to — to Turkey and Iraq. And — and by way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region, but you went to the other nations. And by the way, they noticed that you skipped Israel. And then in those nations and on Arabic TV you said that America had been dismissive and derisive. You said that on occasion America had dictated to other nations. Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators.
As you might imagine the New York Times reporters had a different scorecard. They didn’t see Obama landing this punch on himself, as I did:
UPDATE: For a good counterpoint, I recommend not only Paul’s take, but also (as always) Jay Nordlinger’s. I agree with Jay too!