Kearney: Snarky Obama trumps shallow Romney in third presidential debate


Ryan Kearney, Columnist

Considering his Ivy League education, his undeniable personal success in business and his service as the governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney is clearly not a dumb man. Indeed, it is his intelligence that makes his total hollowness as a presidential candidate all the more stunning. It is that hollowness that was on full display in Monday’s third and final presidential debate.

The debate, which officially focused on foreign policy but took frequent detours to domestic concerns, saw Romney simultaneously embracing much of President Barack Obama’s  foreign policy while attacking him for “weakness.” Romney failed to offer up any concrete suggestions on what he would do as commander-in-chief other than not “apologize” for America, as the president supposedly has. Obama, in contrast, came ready for a fight and broke out the sassy, snarky persona he often does when under fire to defend his record.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Romney’s performance Monday night, given his tendency to bluster on issues of national security and the predominance that advisers of the hawkish Bush-Cheney team have in his campaign, was his frequent agreement with the president’s policies in dealing with various foreign nations. On Iran, Syria and especially Afghanistan and Pakistan, Romney basically followed up Obama’s defense of his aggressive (to many liberals, perhaps too aggressive) policies with vague statements that promised to do exactly what Obama has already been doing for the past four years, such as tightening sanctions on Iran and winding down military engagement in Afghanistan.

Yet while basically embracing the Obama foreign policy, Romney simultaneously blasted the president for being a weak leader and declared his support for items like a “comprehensive plan” and “economic development” of some sort that will improve the situation in the Middle East and elsewhere, much like a high school student at a Model UN conference who only reads the bullet points about “sanctions” and “economic growth” before going into his delegation. Romney also surprised many by taking an uncharacteristically peaceful position on military engagement. Ignoring his previous support for President Bush and the war in Iraq, he stressed that he was committed to avoiding a similarly costly conflict and denied wanting to keep a strong U.S. military presence in the nation.

One man who was not accepting the new, pragmatic Romney was President Obama, who channeled an aggression that was utterly absent from his first debate fiasco.  The president defended his record with more confidence and, notably, snark than I have seen throughout this campaign. Playing up his role as commander-in-chief, he mocked Romney’s lack of any experience in foreign policy decision-making, a remarkable role reversal for a man who was viewed by many as a foreign policy neophyte when compared to his veteran opponent, John McCain, in 2008.

Referring to Romney’s tough talk on Russia, Obama remarked, “The 1980s called; they want their foreign policy back.” When the focus drifted into domestic territory, the president lampooned Romney’s economic and budget proposals that add trillions to the deficit without a way to pay for them, leaving Romney to tell moderator Bob Schieffer to check his website if he wants to see details of how one can cut taxes and add to the military budget by trillions of dollars and simultaneously balance the budget.

In his most stinging and humorous rebuke of the night, Obama ridiculed Romney’s complaint that our Navy has its lowest number of ships since 1916 by remarking that the US also used to have more horses and bayonets and that “we have these things called aircraft carriers” now. It was just the right balance between policy and ridicule, and it was incredibly effective from my (admittedly biased) perspective.

Romney clearly went into this debate with the mission of doing no harm and appearing passable as a commander-in-chief, and in making no major gaffes, he succeeded. Yet by vigorously defending his record, projecting an image as a strong and clear-headed commander-in-chief and viciously exposing the shallowness and lack of ideas of the Romney campaign, Obama came out of the night’s debate a clear victor.  With their three clashes finished, where the neck-and-neck election will now turn is anyone’s guess.

Ryan Kearney is a Communication sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, email a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].