The final debate is over — the last one ever for Obama and for us this election cycle — and it’s time for some flash judgment.
Israel, Israel, Israel: As anyone could have predicted, Israel was mentioned a lot. As “true friend.” As “greatest ally.” I think I counted 6 mentions by the president to 3 from Romney. My favorite was Obama pointing out that “the largest military exercise with Israel in history happened this very week.” But what I could not have predicted was Obama’s extended riff aimed at the Jewish gut, or more precisely the cheek of your nana living in a retirement community in Boca Raton. He had Yad Vashem in there. He mentioned the children of Sderot. And he made sure to not give Romney any, er, daylight, to make his usual “Israel under the bus” argument. When he was done, all Romney could offer to distinguish himself was that he would try and indict Ahmadinejad for genocide incitement.
It’s good to be the chief: Obama seemed to dominate this one, and he was helped largely by the fact that, as he reminded Romney at one point, he has “actually executed foreign policy.” All of the references to real decisions he has made, to conversations with secretaries of defense, to being the commander-in-chief, were calculated to making Romney look small (aside from also happening to be true). It gave Obama an upper hand that he did not squander.
Agreed: Remarkably, Romney spent much of the debate agreeing with Obama’s foreign policy approach. Another a few minutes and he might have endorsed him! From Egypt to drones, again and again, Romney said he supported Obama’s policies. The difference he proposed to bring to the office was to have a stronger, more forceful tone in the execution. To my ears, this distinction sounded hollow. What does it mean practically to just project more toughness? Do you used more superlatives in your speeches? How does it help get things done? Obama seemed to hit a nerve when he said that it sounded like Romney wanted to follow the president’s policies, but just speak more loudly.
Etch-a-sketch a-shak’n: Another clear objective of the president tonight was to use the foreign policy conversation as another opportunity to define Romney as inconsistent. Obama did this again and again, pointing to the zig zagging policy prescriptions voiced by Romney over the course of the last year. And Romney seemed to oblige by presenting tonight yet another face. Anticipating that Obama had a claim on toughness locked down through the killing of Osama bin Laden, Romney attacked the president from…the left. At times, he sounded like John Kerry. He argued that the president hadn’t used enough soft power – improving civil society, working on girl’s education, speaking to the peaceful nature of the Muslim world. “We can’t kill ourselves out of this mess,” was Romney’s practiced line. It sounded like just another shake of the etch-a-sketch. Though it’s possible that others didn’t hear it that way.
Europe? The environment? China?: While we’re thrilled at the Forward that the Middle East and Israel got so much attention, it was disappointing to see such a limited range of subjects discussed. The environment was not seriously brought up once in all these debates and it’s quite a global issue. Or what about any part of the world that is south of the equator? Even those issues that were touched on were done so in a very perfunctory way. The moral and legal dimension of using drones was never explored, for example, once it was established that both candidates agree that they are good policy. The predictability of the questions helped contribute to the staleness of all the debates, I thought, whether the moderator was forceeful or not. The heat instead came from the two men pushing each other and their seeming visceral dislike for one another. Thankfully the debate format gave the space for these fisticuffs to occur.
Thanks for indulging my quick take. If you’d like, participate in our own snap poll on the question of Israel and Iran.
And that’s where I draw my red line, folks!
Judging the Yad Vashem Debate
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman