On Friday, FP reached out to readers, contributors, and outside experts to brainstorm questions for Bob Schieffer as he prepared to moderate the foreign-policy debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. We came up with 55 -- just enough for Schieffer to ask in the fastest and most substantive lightning round in debate history. So how many of our questions -- broadly defined -- did Schieffer end up asking last night?
By my count, seven out of 55:
Not bad! Sadly, however, Schieffer decided to pass on Joseph Nye's question about how Romney could champion American soft power while attacking Big Bird. Too bad there are no more debates.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
For evidence that the United States is still disproportionately focused on the Middle East despite all the talk about the pivot (or should I say "strategic rebalancing?") toward the Asia-Pacific region, look no further than the country mentions at tonight's foreign-policy debate:
The surprise of the night? Romney's four references to Mali (in the context of al Qaeda's resurgence), a country he hasn't mentioned in his major foreign-policy addresses or even in his campaign website's Africa section. The Republican candidate clearly studied up on al Qaeda's new franchises.
Update: Thanks to our readers for spotting a few other country mentions. The candidates and moderator also referenced Japan, Poland, and Tunisia -- one time each.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
To put the agenda for tonight's foreign-policy debate topics in some context, it's helpful to go back to a time before the Arab Spring, the European debt crisis, and the death of Osama bin Laden.
When Barack Obama and John McCain met for their first debate in September 2008, the U.S. troop surge in Iraq was less than two years old, Benjamin Netanyahu was an opposition leader in Israel, Japan had a larger economy than China, and hostilities had recently erupted between Russia and Georgia. Lehman Brothers had just collapsed and Congress was considering a $700 billion bank bailout, spurring moderator Jim Lehrer to devote the first 40 minutes of what was supposed to be a debate on foreign policy and national security to the economy.
When Lehrer finally steered the debate to international affairs (an area in which McCain had the advantage), he asked about the lessons of the war in Iraq, the wisdom of sending more troops to Afghanistan, the threat Iran posed to the United States, the future of U.S.-Russian relations, and the likelihood of another 9/11 attack.
Tonight's face-off will likely look very different than the last presidential debate on foreign policy. Topics such as the Afghan war and the Iranian nuclear program will resurface in new ways, while others -- the rise of China, America's role in the world, the changing Middle East and terrorist threat -- will achieve newfound prominence.
For a sense of how dramatically the foreign-policy conversation has changed in the space of four years, just look at some of the most memorable lines from the 2008 debate. In one of the most heated exchanges, for example, the candidates debated the success of the surge in Iraq.
OBAMA: [Our troops] have done a brilliant job, and General Petraeus has done a brilliant job. But understand, that was a tactic designed to contain the damage of the previous four years of mismanagement of this war.
And so John likes -- John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007. You talk about the surge. The war started in 2003, and at the time when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong.
You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shiite and Sunni. And you were wrong....
MCCAIN: I'm afraid Senator Obama doesn't understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy.... Senator Obama refuses to acknowledge that we are winning in Iraq.
McCain also attacked Obama's willingness to pursue terrorists in Pakistan (the GOP candidate later had to rein in Sarah Palin when she appeared to agree with Obama's position):
MCCAIN: He said that he would launch military strikes into Pakistan.
Now, you don't do that. You don't say that out loud. If you have to do things, you have to do things, and you work with the Pakistani government....
OBAMA: Nobody talked about attacking Pakistan. Here's what I said.
And if John wants to disagree with this, he can let me know, that, if the United States has al Qaeda, bin Laden, top-level lieutenants in our sights, and Pakistan is unable or unwilling to act, then we should take them out.
MCCAIN: Senator Obama twice said in debates he would sit down with Ahmadinejad, Chavez and Raul Castro without precondition. Without precondition. Here is Ahmadinenene [mispronunciation], Ahmadinejad, who is, Ahmadinejad, who is now in New York, talking about the extermination of the State of Israel, of wiping Israel off the map....
OBAMA: So let's talk about this. First of all, Ahmadinejad is not the most powerful person in Iran. So he may not be the right person to talk to. But I reserve the right, as president of the United States to meet with anybody at a time and place of my choosing if I think it's going to keep America safe.
Now, understand what this means "without preconditions." It doesn't mean that you invite them over for tea one day. What it means is that we don't do what we've been doing, which is to say, "Until you agree to do exactly what we say, we won't have direct contacts with you."
While both candidates condemned Russia's actions against Georgia, McCain also accused Obama of being soft on Moscow and too inexperienced to be commander-in-chief, playing off of George W. Bush's bizarre remark in 2001 about looking into Putin's eyes and getting a "sense of his soul."
OBAMA: [W]e have to have a president who is clear that you don't deal with Russia based on staring into his eyes and seeing his soul. You deal with Russia based on, what are your -- what are the national security interests of the United States of America?
And we have to recognize that the way they've been behaving lately demands a sharp response from the international community and our allies....
MCCAIN: Well, I was interested in Senator Obama's reaction to the Russian aggression against Georgia. His first statement was, "Both sides ought to show restraint."
Again, a little bit of naivete there. He doesn't understand that Russia committed serious aggression against Georgia. And Russia has now become a nation fueled by petro-dollars that is basically a KGB apparatchik-run government.
I looked into Mr. Putin's eyes, and I saw three letters, a "K," a "G," and a "B." And their aggression in Georgia is not acceptable behavior.
All this isn't to say we won't see shades of the previous foreign-policy debate tonight. In light of the New York Times report over the weekend about possible direct talks between Iran and the United States, Mitt Romney might argue that Barack Obama is naively sitting down with Iranian officials who won't be negotiating in good faith. And you never know: Romney, who's no fan of Vladimir Putin, could always borrow McCain's KGB zinger.
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
Just over a month ago, I wrote a post with the headline, "Dems haven't had this much national-security swagger since LBJ." At the time, the Democrats were concluding their convention and President Obama was enjoying rare and resounding double-digit leads over his Republican challenger on foreign policy, national security, and counterterrorism. That was before the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Obama's lackluster performance in the first debate, and Mitt Romney's sustained post-debate bounce.
Fast-forward several weeks, and Romney appears to have made dramatic strides on foreign policy and national security. The wording of questions and types of respondents vary in the national polls below, so what follows is not an apples-to-apples analysis (sadly, there's no daily tracking poll for foreign policy). The most recent polls also don't reflect Obama's stronger outing in his second debate. But the general trend should be clear:
The Pew poll released this week also shows Obama losing some support for his response to the Libya attack, Obama and Romney running neck-and-neck on dealing with Iran's nuclear program, and Romney leading Obama by nine points on handling China's trade policies.
As I mentioned before, it's important to emphasize that these polls do not capture Obama's performance in the second debate. But when CNN polled Americans who watched this week's town hall and asked them which candidate would do a better job handling foreign policy, Obama emerged with a mere 49-47 advantage over Romney.
Obama clearly still has the overall edge on foreign policy. But his dominance appears to be waning -- just in time for a debate on foreign policy next week.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
BuzzFeed has called it the "moment where Barack Obama won the debate." MSNBC's Rachel Maddow dubbed it a "political disaster" for Mitt Romney. National Review's Jim Geraghty described it as "one of the most egregious misjudgments of any moderator in the history of presidential debates."
During Tuesday night's presidential debate, moderator Candy Crowley corrected Romney when he pounced on Obama for claiming that he'd cdescribed the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi as an act of terror. "He did call it an act of terror," Crowley noted to applause and Obama's delight. Romney retorted that it had taken a long time for the administration to describe the assault as a terrorist attack rather than a spontaneous reaction to an inflammatory film.
Within hours, political observers were characterizing the exchange as a pivotal moment in the campaign -- a gaffe for the history books. Romney "was even held accountable by Candy Crowley for not telling the truth about the president acknowledging an act of terror," Senator John Kerry (D-MA) noted. "I think tonight Mitt Romney's campaign fell away."
Political Wire's Taegan Goddard, meanwhile, compared Romney's misstep to Gerald Ford's famous declaration during a 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration." Here's Goddard:
[Romney] scored many points. But he lost most of them by not knowing his facts on what President Obama said the morning after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya. Obama acted like a president in the exchange while Romney was much less. It was Romney's Gerald Ford moment.
Over at the New York Times, Andrew Rosenthal went a step further, likening Romney not just to Ford but to George H.W. Bush:
When George H.W. Bush looked at his watch in a 1992 debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot and absolutely bungled a question about how the national debt had affected him personally, he cemented the impression that he was out of touch with real Americans' lives.
When Gerald Ford denied in 1976 that there was any "Soviet domination" of Eastern Europe, he cemented the impression that he was out of touch with pretty much everything....
Tonight, Mitt Romney may have had a similar moment, during a back-and-forth about the attack on the Benghazi Consulate.
There's ample reason to be skeptical of these damning assessments, however. For starters, the controversy surrounding the candidate's remarks involves semantics -- act of terror or terrorist attack? -- and won't deter Republicans from continuing to criticize the administration's response to the assault and overall Mideast policy.
What's more, Americans were deeply concerned about the Soviet Union at the time of Gerald Ford's gaffe -- something that can't be said for the public's attitude toward Libya at the moment. In a national survey conducted by the Foreign Policy Initiative in mid-September, just over 2 percent of respondents cited Libya in response to an open-ended question about the country that presents the most danger to American national security interests.
Rosenthal concedes that Romney's Libya remarks "likely won't have the same impact as Mr. Ford's Soviet domination gaffe or Mr. Bush's watch episode, which "may have cost them their elections." But even here, there's not much evidence that the Ford and Bush blunders had any such effect.
A 2008 Gallup study, for example, found that the 1992 presidential debates didn't affect the standing of Bush or challenger Bill Clinton, though they may have boosted support for third-party candidate Ross Perot. The polling firm concluded that the 1976 presidential debates may have made the race "more competitive" but did not change the contest's "fundamentals," since Carter was leading before the debates. "After Ford's statement about the lack of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe -- widely perceived as a gaffe - Carter's lead expanded slightly to 6 points and remained at about that level after the third and final debate," Gallup noted.
The emerging Romney-equals-Ford narrative, in other words, doesn't really work. Still, Ford's experience does offer some cautionary tales for Romney. Ford campaign staffer Doug Bailey once recalled that while the Eastern Europe gaffe didn't sway the election, it did halt the steady gains Ford had been making against Carter in the polls:
Our own polling data would suggest that really in the end we did not lose any people because of the Eastern European statement. That, by and large, people were shocked by it; dumbfounded by it, and some people close to that issue were offended by it.... But over time, almost all of those people came back to us. What it did cost us was momentum because we were just caught dead in our tracks for a week to ten days. And the progress of closing those gaps with about a half point per day stopped, at the same rate, after that ten day gap where everything just stood still.
And news outlets may have played a significant role in creating that dynamic that Bailey described. As the political scientist John Sides recently noted, debate viewers didn't mention the Eastern Europe remarks in a poll conducted on the night of the Ford-Carter matchup. "Only for viewers interviewed the next day did this gaffe become more salient -- evidence that the public needed the news media to point out that Ford had made a mistake," Sides observes. Indeed, the president was subsequently assailed by headlines such as "The Blooper Heard Round the World" and "Jerry Ford Drops a Brick."
These days, the media's judgment is near-instantaneous. If the press hype over the Libya exchange keeps building, it could be bad news for Mitt-mentum.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Anyone who watched the Democratic convention knows that the Obama campaign is championing the killing of Osama bin Laden as one of the administration's signature achievements -- a strategy best summed up by Vice President Joe Biden's reminder that "Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive."
But it hasn't been easy for the president to mention the al Qaeda leader's death during the first two presidential debates, which have focused largely on domestic policy, and that's made for some odd moments. During Tuesday night's town hall, for example, an audience member complained about the rising cost of living:
QUESTION: Mr. President, I voted for you in 2008. What have you done or accomplished to earn my vote in 2012? I'm not that optimistic as I was in 2012. Most things I need for everyday living are very expensive.
OBAMA: Well, we've gone through a tough four years. There's no doubt about it. But four years ago, I told the American people and I told you I would cut taxes for middle class families. And I did. I told you I'd cut taxes for small businesses, and I have.
I said that I'd end the war in Iraq, and I did. I said we'd refocus attention on those who actually attacked us on 9/11, and we have gone after Al Qaeda's leadership like never before and Osama bin Laden is dead.
After listing several other successes on the domestic front, Obama conceded that people are still struggling despite his achievements and circled back to the original prompt about accomplishments by stating that "the commitments I've made, I've kept." But the mentions of Iraq, al Qaeda, and bin Laden still seemed out of place in response to a question about economic struggles.
Obama made an even more bizarre reference to bin Laden in the first debate, when he fielded a question about partisan gridlock. The president appeared to suggest that he'd pursued bin Laden because it would strengthen the middle class:
But look, my philosophy has been I will take ideas from anybody, Democrat or Republican, as long as they're advancing the cause of making middle-class families stronger and giving ladders of opportunity into the middle class. That's how we cut taxes for middle-class families and small businesses. That's how we cut a trillion dollars of spending that wasn't advancing that cause. That's how we signed three trade deals into law that are helping us to double our exports and sell more American products around the world. That's how we repealed "don't ask, don't tell." That's how we ended the war in Iraq, as I promised, and that's how we're going to wind down the war in Afghanistan. That's how we went after al-Qaida and bin Laden.
As my colleague Josh Rogin notes, this language about ending the war in Iraq, weakening al Qaeda, and killing bin Laden is part of Obama's stump speech. But the past two debates suggest that the president reflexively invokes the wording whenever there's an opening -- however far afield -- to discuss his accomplishments. Luckily for Obama, the third and final presidential debate will focus on foreign policy. That should provide more than enough opportunities to work in a bin Laden reference or two.
In one of the most interesting exchanges of Tuesday night's presidential debate, a town hall participant asked Mitt Romney what distinguished him from George W. Bush. The GOP candidate returned to his five-point plan for the economy, noting that, unlike the previous Republican president, he would balance the budget, champion small business, expand trade with Latin America, crack down aggressively on Chinese trade practices, and secure energy independence for North America:
We can now, by virtue of new technology actually get all the energy we need in North America without having to go to the the Arabs or the Venezuelans or anyone else. That wasn't true in [Bush's] time, that's why my policy starts with a very robust policy to get all that energy in North America -- become energy secure.
Never mind that, as Gregg Carlstom pointed out, the criticisms of Bush didn't really revolve around his failure to strike Latin American free trade agreements or get tough on Beijing. When it came to energy policy, Romney expanded on his plan elsewhere in the debate, promising to increase manufacturing jobs and achieve energy independence "within eight years" by approving the Keystone XL Pipeline, increasing offshore drilling, granting more licenses and permits for drilling on federal lands and in federals waters, and embracing a mix of energy sources including oil, coal, nuclear, natural gas, and renewables.
The issue is, Bush echoed Romney's overarching theme -- reducing America's dependence on OPEC by a date certain through technology and a variety of promising energy sources -- in his 2006 State of the Union address, which came two years before Bush lifted an executive ban on offshore oil drilling:
Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. And here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world. The best way to break this addiction is through technology. Since 2001, we have spent nearly $10 billion to develop cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable alternative energy sources. And we are on the threshold of incredible advances.
So tonight I announce the Advanced Energy Initiative-a 22-percent increase in clean-energy research at the Department of Energy-to push for breakthroughs in two vital areas. To change how we power our homes and offices, we will invest more in zero-emission coal-fired plants, revolutionary solar and wind technologies, and clean, safe nuclear energy.
We must also change how we power our automobiles. We will increase our research in better batteries for hybrid and electric cars and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen. We'll also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn but from wood chips and stalks or switchgrass. Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within 6 years.
Breakthroughs on this and other new technologies will help us reach another great goal: to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025. By applying the talent and technology of America, this country can dramatically improve our environment, move beyond a petroleum-based economy, and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past.
Romney's plan, which promises North American energy independence in less than a decade and builds on research such as Citi's Energy 2020 report, is certainly more ambitious than Bush's. But is the Republican candidate really advocating a clean break with Bush on energy policy? Or did he simply dodge a tough question by pivoting back to his five-point plan?
John Moore/Getty Images
A growing body of research may suggest that there are very few truly undecided voters still out there, and that their role in deciding elections is exaggerated. But the Gallup polling firm apparently believes it's tracked down 80 politically uncommitted Long Islanders to compose the audience at tonight's town hall-style presidential debate, which will touch on a mix of foreign and domestic policy issues. All this raises the question: What's the foreign policy of undecided voters?
I haven't come across a study on this topic specifically, but a national poll released by the Foreign Policy Initiative late last month offers some clues. Here's a quick look at the ways self-identified independents responded to the organization's questions:
Independents, of course, are not necessarily synonymous with undecided voters (according to the FPI poll, more than 40 percent of independents report that they're either voting for Obama or leaning toward doing so, and just under 40 percent say the same about Romney).
But if you track another, significantly smaller group in the survey -- those who identify as "firm undecideds" when it comes to the election -- on the issues listed above, you'll find the same broad trends. The portrait of the independent voter that emerges -- focused primarily on the economy, wary of tinkering with defense spending, relatively hawkish on Iran and Syria, concerned about the rise of China, ambivalent on Afghanistan, skeptical of foreign aid, pessimistic about the direction of the country but bullish on America's global leadership -- is worth keeping in mind as you watch tonight's debate.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Passport, FP’s flagship blog, brings you news and hidden angles on the biggest stories of the day, as well as insights and under-the-radar gems from around the world.