Monday night, the Commission On Presidential Debates wraps up the 2012 series of debates with its extra special season finale. When we last left our protagonists, President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, they were, basically, yelling at each other about a host of issues before an audience of undecided voters from whom the questions of the evening were extracted. It made for a sharp series of exchanges and an emphasis on the theatrical.
The president, having decided to ditch the somnambulatory techniques he used in his first disastrous debate, showed substantially more verve in his second outing, and has been generally characterized as the winner, on points. But Romney held up decently as well, turning in a performance that conservative pundits could continue to support. Now, they meet one last time, in a debate that decides everything. We guess? Let's just go with that.
THE VENUE AND TOPIC AREA: This year's season of debates has ended up in the city where everything, eventually, goes to retire -- Boca Raton, Fla., at the campus of Lynn University. Lynn U. is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and boasts that it is "the youngest school to ever host a modern presidential debate." One of the fun facts about Lynn: "Lynn University is across the street from where IBM invented the first PC." We live across the street from a pawn shop, so we'd say Lynn is doing pretty okay.
If you'd like to hear more from these candidates on domestic policy, well, you are out of luck, my friends. Monday night's debate will be strictly about foreign policy. At least, that's what's expected -- we wouldn't be surprised if either candidate slipped in some points on economic matters if the opportunity presented itself. And because we're in Boca, the temptation to offer up some promises on Medicare and Medicaid will be great.
THE DEBATE FORMAT: Good news for people who liked the unstructured discussion of the first debate, if any such people actually exist: this final debate will also feature six questions, and candidates will have fifteen minutes to answer each, the same format that was attempted, rather unsuccessfully, in the opening round.
Those six question/discussion sections will encompass the following themes, barring any news event that intervenes between now and then:
- America's role in the world
- Our longest war - Afghanistan and Pakistan
- Red Lines - Israel and Iran
- The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism - I
- The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism - II
- The Rise of China and Tomorrow's World
(Yeah, we sort of feel we're getting cheated with two sections on the same topic, too. It is what it is.)
THE MODERATOR: Moderating the final debate will be "Face The Nation" host Bob Schieffer, whom we notice has not yet been subjected to the same amount of pre-game scrutiny and controversy as Candy Crowley, because Schieffer isn't a woman, and so no one questions why he is speaking aloud in public. But there are some concerns, nonetheless. Tim Noah, for instance, writes that he "in no way intend[s] to suggest that ... Schieffer, who’s a few months shy of 76" is "any less good [at his] day job than [he was] 20 or 30 years ago," and, in addition, contends that he does not "mean to suggest that older people in general are any less fit to perform journalism than younger people." "If anything," he says, "it’s the opposite." So, what is he saying? This, apparently:
There isn’t anybody presiding over this year’s presidential and vice-presidential debates who isn’t AARP-eligible. But Raddatz’s and Crowley’s mental agility is very likely speedier and more limber today than it will be 15 years from now. It is also, I suspect, speedier and more limber than Lehrer’s and Schieffer’s is today. And if I’m wrong and it isn’t, it’s still a cinch that it is speedier and more limber than that of most other men—and women—of Lehrer’s and Schieffer’s ages. I’m not suggesting an age limit. I don’t want to get hauled in before the EEOC. But I do think age is a factor that determines how good a debate moderator you’re likely to be.
Dissenting from this view is Paul Rainey, who says that viewers should not "expect Schieffer ... to deliver a performance nearly as passive as Lehrer's," and insists that Schieffer "has remained probing and even a bit feisty" and thus could "throw more curves." As Rainey relates:
Reuters commentator Paul Gough wrote four years ago that Schieffer presided over the only one of four presidential debates between Obama and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that “had any life.”
“Schieffer learned the lessons of the three other debates and also was determined not to settle for the same pat answers,” Gough said. “He dug, and pressed, and wouldn't let the candidates off the hook easily -- all of which made for a more interesting 90 minutes than its predecessors.”
So, Bob Schieffer may be too old to moderate the debate, unless it turns out he's as good at debate moderation as he is at his "day job." Which, last time we checked, was moderating a debate every single Sunday morning.
THE PRE-GAME: Romney's attempt at mounting an argument against Obama's intervention in Libya, and the concomitant tragedy at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, ran aground when he opted to fight the matter on the basis of semantics -- what Obama said in the Rose Garden, in response to the attacks that claimed the lives of four Americans, and what specific words he used during that address.
That line of attack proved to be perilous, and the temptation could return on Monday if Romney gives in to the umbrage over Obama's "Daily Show" appearance, which, as Dave Weigel explains, is wrongheaded. This is where a "fiesty" Bob Schieffer, who wants the candidates to go deeper and broader during a fifteen-minute discussion, can steer things away from the inane focus on words -- and, potentially, tougher sledding for Obama. Points are there to be scored by Romney if he's able to summon the discipline to take them. (Joshua Hersh's piece, "Libya Debate Controversy: The Many Assumptions Of Romney And Obama," is a good debate audience primer.)
Of course, there's perhaps far too much attention being placed on Libya -- you'll note that the intended subjects also include discussions on "red lines" with Iran and our perpetual wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Here, there should be a high demand for distinction between each candidate's plans; it will be interesting to see if we emerge from this debate with any greater clarity on these topics.
WHAT'S AT STAKE: Foreign policy had been seen as a fairly strong area for Obama in the broader electorate before Benghazi went sideways and took some of the bloom off the rose. Romney, on the other hand, has been largely presented as the savvy, CEO "turnaround artist" -- the balm for what ails you in this bad economy. From time to time during the campaign, the Romney camp has had an internal debate over whether it should make a bigger deal out of foreign policy -- the argument against being that the economy is more important to Americans right now, foreign policy matters having slipped down the list of popular concerns.
But, as Richard Clarke points out, there's a classic Rovian strategy to be executed here:
Karl Rove, the Republican evil genius of campaign slurs, is famous for advising candidates to attack an opponent’s strong suit. If Sen. John Kerry is a decorated war hero and your guy avoided going to Vietnam, then attack Kerry’s service record. If Sen. Max Cleland lost limbs fighting for America, question his patriotism.
The problem is that those two outrageous attacks worked, as have many others like them.
Why is the attack on Benghazi being talked about so much? It is not because the Republicans have a long record of caring about embassy security. House Republicans cut $128 million in fiscal year 2011 and an additional $331 million in fiscal year 2012 from what Secretary of State Clinton requested for embassy security.
No, it’s because their polling and focus groups show that voters believe that President Obama has done a very good job fighting terrorists. Therefore, the Rove theory says, you attack Obama on terrorism.
Knowing this, the losing hand for Obama is if he comes in planning to wave Osama bin Laden's bloody shirt and call it day. He should expect Romney's argument to be pointedly critical and personal. The usual caveats about parrying an attack without losing your temper completely apply.
In addition, this debate, being the last, will likely serve as the candidate's final statement-slash-closing argument. So, if you win that coin toss, you'll want to go last.
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