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Thoughts on playing to win tonight’s foreign policy debate

I expect that tonight’s presidential debate will draw many fewer viewers than the first two. After all, it must compete with Monday Night Football and Game 7 of the National League Championship Series.

On the other hand, the first two debates (for different reasons) served up compelling television experiences. Female viewers, at least, may by unwilling to resist the encore, sports viewing opportunities notwithstanding.

Foreign policy, tonight’s topic, isn’t foremost in the minds of most voters. But it does offer mostly new debating ground. And viewers were treated to a tantalizing preview during the Libya portion of the second debate.

I have argued that foreign policy provides a “growth opportunity” for Mitt Romney. Perhaps the best evidence that this is so consists of Team Obama’s insistence — evident most starkly in the vice presidential debate — that there is no real difference between the candidates on the big issues like Iran, Syria, and Israel.

In an election where the incumbent is confident that he has an advantage on foreign policy, you would expect the president to draw sharp contrasts between his approach and that of his opponent — see Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan. And you would expect it all the more in an election where the incumbent is viewed unfavorably with respect to his handling of the economy.

But so far, we haven’t seen this from the Obama campaign. Instead, the pitch is that the policies of the two candidates are similar, but Obama has more experience and a steadier hand. That might have been a good pitch prior to Benghazi — these days, not so much.

To be sure, Romney hasn’t provided much material for Obama to use in drawing sharp policy contrasts that will benefit the president. Romney did say, in 2007, that “it’s not worth moving heaven and Earth and spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person,” meaning bin Laden. But on the issues that are alive today, Romney has staked out his positions cautiously, so as not to paint himself to a war-weary nation as a war-monger.

Tonight, I expect Obama to tempt Romney into sounding more hawkish than previously. If, as I expect, Romney largely avoids the bait, Obama will then fall back to his “there’s no substantive difference” line. He may well bolster this line by accusing Romney of talking tougher than he actually is, something that an experienced Commander-in Chief knows not to do (“Speak softly” and all that.)

If this is the tenor of the debate, it will probably end up a draw — not a bad result for Romney at this juncture. However, as I have argued, Romney can obtain a better result by systematically tying Obama’s misguided foreign policy instincts — apologizing for America and favoring our enemies over our friends in the first instance — to the bad outcomes we’ve witnessed in Libya, Syria, Iran, Egypt, and Russia.

This approach will undercut Obama’s narrative and place him on the defensive. And because Obama is rather thin-skinned, it may also bring out a side of the president he’d prefer to keep under wraps.

If Romney takes this approach, I won’t regret missing that NLCS Game 7.

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