With the presidential race extremely tight, and both sides having pulled out most of the stops, it’s worth considering what the candidates can do at this late date to move the needle. For Obama it will be all about turning in strong debate performances. A win in one or both of the two remaining contests might well restore the race to something like its pre-debate status. Two solid performances, even if they don’t result in victory, might cause public opinion to drift back his way, as they did for George W. Bush in 2004.
By the same token, another resounding Romney debate win might put Obama on the mat for the count. But Romney cannot expect that sort of victory now that Team Obama knows what it is up against. Obama will be looking for a middle ground between his lethargic performance and Biden’s hyper-obnoxious follow up. Expect him to find it.
But events have suddenly given Romney an unexpected area for growth – foreign policy. Throughout the course of the race, Obama’s edge in this realm has been a given. The killing of bin Laden, coupled with our exit from Iraq and planned exit from Afghanistan, has been sufficient to produce the perception that Obama is a foreign policy success. There was nothing, it seemed, that Romney could do to alter this view, and therefore little reason to try.
This changed with Benghazi. Although public outrage over the brutal killing of our ambassador and other Americans has been somewhat muted, this shameful story hasn’t gone away; nor will it. At a minimum, voters believe Obama has some explaining to do.
Benghazi thus represents a political minus for Obama in and of itself. But it is also a potential entrée into a serious discussion of Obama’s foreign policy. Paul Ryan recognized this during the vice presidential debate when he asserted that, with events in Libya and Egypt, we see Obama’s policy unraveling before our eyes. Unfortunately, due to circumstances at least partly beyond his control, Ryan wasn’t able to amplify on this claim.
Romney should. He should argue that Obama has the wrong foreign policy instincts; that consequently he has had the wrong approach to most of serious foreign policy issue; and that in Benghazi the chickens came home to roost.
Obama’s instincts are to apologize for America, to appease our worst enemies, and to accommodate powers like Russia and China which, if not our enemies, have interests that diverge sharply from ours. These instincts explain why the Obama administration initially was so well disposed to Assad in Syria and why it failed to offer support for the mass demonstrators in Iran. It also explains the failed “reset” of relations with Russia.
Ryan raised all of these points in his debate, but he wasn’t able to tie them together. This enabled Biden to fend off the attacks one-by-one. The vice president insisted that Ryan tell him what Romney would do differently now with respect to Syria and Iran. Ryan countered by talking about what Romney would have done differently in the past. In the end, viewers probably saw this as something like a standoff.
But by pointing out the pattern — Obama’s consistent practice of cozying up to hostile powers and/or failing to recognize which powers and interests are, in fact, hostile – Romney can argue the president is courting disaster. He is courting disaster in Iran, where he diddled while the mullahs continued to develop their nuclear program; disaster in Libya, where he failed to provide a U.S. presence sufficient to protect our interests and our people; and disaster in the future because we live in a dangerous world.
This presidential race remains first and foremost about the economy. But both sides have said pretty much everything they have to say about this subject. Voters know how weak the recovery is and how bad the situation Obama inherited was. They know about Romney’s five point plan to create jobs. They know both sides’ critique of the other side’s approach to taxation, Medicare, and so on.
But in the area of foreign policy there is so much new to be said. And because Obama has had the advantage in this area, it is here that Romney can grow.
Team Obama understands this. That’s why Biden pushed a “no real difference between the candidates” narrative. Biden was echoing the line I see almost daily in from liberals in the Washington Post and elsewhere. It’s a false narrative, and one that Romney, with a little work, can show to be false.
Obama, understandably, is content with the state of play regarding the role of foreign policy in the campaign. Romney should not be. The horrible events in Benghazi provide him the opportunity to alter it.