Topic Can Romney/Ryan get elected?
23 Oct 2012 09:53
From The New Yorker
MITT THE SHAPE-SHIFTER FALLS ON OBAMA’S BAYONET
Posted by John Cassidy
Let’s start with the blindingly obvious: President Obama won last night’s debate in Boca Raton, and won it easily. According to a CBS instant poll of uncommitted voters, his margin of victory was thirty points—fifty-three per cent to twenty-three per cent—a bigger margin even than the one Mitt Romney enjoyed in Denver a few weeks ago. On the question of who would better handle terrorism and national security, the split in Obama’s favor was almost as large: sixty-four per cent to thirty-six per cent.
These figures are hardly surprising. From Obama’s very first answer, when he said to his opponent, “Your strategy previously has been one that has been all over the map,” to near the end, when he said, “Governor Romney, you keep trying to airbrush history,” he was the more aggressive debater, the more polished, the more persuasive, and the more punitive. Before the first debate, his aides proclaimed him above the use of “zingers.” On this occasion, he came with his pockets bulging with them, none more zingy than his crack about the military having fewer bayonets and horses than it did in 1916—a riposte that clearly had been prepared for use if Romney repeated his line about the U.S. Navy having fewer warships now than it had almost a hundred years ago, which indeed he did. Not content with mocking his opponent once, Obama proceeded to do it twice more: “We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them,” he said. “We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”
If that was the sound bite of the evening, there were lots more high moments for the President, some of them supplied, mystifyingly enough, by his opponent, who was engaged in what amounted to a shape-shifting exercise too far. Having observed how well his “Mitt the Moderate” act went down in Denver, the G.O.P. candidate had evidently decided to reprise it in the arena of foreign policy. On issue after issue—Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, the pursuit of Al Quada—he aligned himself with the Administration’s policies, backing away from his previous criticisms, and from any suggestion that he might govern as a bellicose warmonger.
Asked about the United States’ role in the world, he said: “Our purpose is to make sure the world is more—is peaceful. We want a peaceful planet. We want people to be able to enjoy their lives and know they’re going to have a bright and prosperous future, not be at war.” In response to a question about how he would go beyond the Administration’s efforts to topple the Assad regime, he said: “I don’t want to have our military involved in Syria.” Nor in Afghanistan. Where previously he had questioned Obama’s commitment to bring all the troops home by 2014, he now declared: “We’re going to be finished by 2014, and when I’m President, we’ll make sure we bring our troops out by the end of 2014.” Around the country, conservatives were watching with increasing alarm. “How many times has Romney said the president is right tonight,” Rich Lowry, the editor of the National Review, tweeted about fifteen minutes before the end. “i thought he shld try to be a little above the fray, but this is a bit much.” Brent Bozell, founder of the Media Research Center, agreed, tweeting: “Romney’s closing statement better save this performance, or he’s a big loser tonight.”
From the very beginning, you knew something fishy was going on. In his first question of the evening, Bob Schieffer, the courtly CBS veteran, brought up the recent deaths in Libya of four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. “Questions remain,” Schieffer said. “What happened? What caused it? Was it spontaneous? Was it an intelligence failure? Was it a policy failure? Was there an attempt to mislead people about what really happened? Governor Romney, you said this was an example of an American policy in the Middle East that is unravelling before our very eyes.” Uh-oh, you thought. Here comes the answer Romney should have given last week: a stinging denunciation of the Administration’s failure to provide adequate security for Stevens and his colleagues, followed by a ringing indictment of its efforts to portray a terrorist attack as a spontaneous riot.
But no. Rather than unsheathing his bayonet and ramming it into the President’s gullet, Romney said, “Mr. President, it’s good to be with you again,” and went off on a rambling discourse about the threats facing the world, taking in the Arab Spring, the carnage in Syria, the Iranian nuclear threat, the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory in Egypt, and the takeover of “the northern part of Mali”—yes, Mali—“by Al Qaeda-type individuals.” Just when you thought he was circling back to Benghazi, Romney said, “and we’re going to have to recognize that we have to do as the President has done. I congratulate him on—on taking out Osama bin Laden and going after the leadership in Al Qaeda. But we can’t kill our way out of this mess. We’re going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the—the world of Islam and other parts of the world, reject this radical violent extremism.”
It was hard to know which was more shocking: Romney paying tribute to Obama, or a Republican politician saying: “We can’t kill our way out this mess.” As I was struggling to decide, Romney went on: “We don’t want another Iraq, we don’t want another Afghanistan. That’s not the right course for us. The right course for us is to make sure that we go after the—the people who are leaders of these various anti-American groups and these—these jihadists, but also help the Muslim world. And how do we do that? A group of Arab scholars came together, organized by the U.N., to look at how we can help the—the world reject these—these terrorists.”
The hirsute and somewhat elderly gent keeling over in the G.O.P. green room was John Bolton, the Bush Administration hard-liner who, in 2005 and 2006, spent a year and a half camped out on the East Side trying to insult as many U.N. officials (and foreigners in general) as he could. In reaction to questions about why Romney had enlisted head cases like Bolton to his foreign-policy team, his flacks frequently pointed to the presence of less fearsome figures, such as Robert Zoellick, the former head of the World Bank. But who knew that Romney had also enlisted Katrina vanden Heuvel and Kofi Annan as advisers? Not I, anyway.
About the only time Romney got his Irish up and took the fight to Obama was when he repeated his charge that the President, at the beginning of his term, had embarked on an “apology tour” of the Middle East. Obama promptly dismissed this as “the biggest whopper that’s been told during the course of this campaign.” Romney, rather than saying, yet again, that he agreed with the President, came back at him, accusing him of saying on Arabic television 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.”
Finally, something for Republicans to cheer about. But that was Romney’s one Reagan moment. Afterwards, however, there was some suggestion from the pundits that his entire performance had been a fiendishly clever attempt to ape what the Gipper did in 1980, during a debate with Jimmy Carter: come on all lovey-dovey and peace-loving, and thereby put to rest fears that, should he be elected, he would promptly loose one off on the Soviets. “Mitt Romney did something pretty important tonight,” David Gergen said on CNN. “He came across as a responsible-sounding Commander-in-Chief.” Over on Fox, Charles Krauthammer developed this argument further: “He stayed away from the pitfalls. He did not allow himself to to be pictured as a warmonger. I think this could help him win the election.”
I don’t buy it. If Romney does win, it will be despite this performance rather than because of it. In refusing to engage in detail about what happened in Libya, he gave up his one chance of really embarrassing the President on a specific foreign-policy issue. In constantly siding with Obama on issues of military policy and counter-terrorism—did I say he loves drone attacks?—he undermined his argument that the President’s term of office has been a failure and he needs running out of town. And in constantly reversing his previous positions, he raised anew the question that has plagued him all along: Does he actually believe in anything?
After the debate had finished, I went to a bookshelf and pulled out my copy of “The Real Romney,” a meticulously reported biography of the G.O.P. candidate that I’ve cited before because it’s probably still the best thing written on him. In their prologue, the authors, Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, two reporters at the Boston Globe, recall the Mittster’s 2008 campaign, when, with John McCain and Rudy Giuliani occupying what passes for the moderate center in the G.O.P., Romney decided to recreate himself as a right-winger, shamelessly courting the social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, religious conservatives—“any conservatives he could find.”
The trouble was that it looked too much like opportunism—or worse, insincerity, given his long record of syncing his political views with the party’s moderate wing. “Everything could always be tweaked, reshaped, fixed, addressed,” said one former aide, describing Romney’s outlook. “It was foreign to him on policy issues that core principles mattered—that somebody would go back and say, ‘Well, three years ago you said this.’ ” The perception of expedience, along with lingering bigotry against Mormonism, helped bury his hopes.
In 2012, Romney has largely overcome any anti-Mormon feeling in the party, and the country. But, as last night’s debate demonstrated, the perception of expedience will never go away because it is perfectly accurate. Indeed, it is getting worse. Where once he repudiated things he said three years ago, he now repudiates things he said three months ago, or even three weeks ago. Fourteen days from now, we will find out whether his outrageously cynical approach to campaigning pays off. Given the way the polls are going, such a possibility can’t be wholly discounted. But last night, I suspect, he went too far. The voters may be gullible. But are they that gullible?
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