And so the last of the four TV-debates in the presidential election campaign is over and in only two weeks, America will choose a new president.
The debates have played an important role in this campaign, more important, perhaps, than in many a year, maybe since John F Kennedy met Richard Nixon in the very first debate in 1960 and upset the favorite, the sitting vice president.
In the first debate in this year’s campaign, the challenger Mitt Romney knocked the socks off a sleepy Barack Obama and became a serious challenger to the president. Obama’s listless performance let Romney into the race, a race that the president at that time led comfortably. And then, Romney held his ground pretty well, although the judgment is that Obama won the two following debates –last night’s by 48 percent to 40, according to CNN’s first quick poll, and by 53 percent to 23 according to CBS News.
Still, it was a fairly even debate where neither candidate committed any major mistakes. In fact, you could argue that there was no real debate, for Romney had decided to hold back, lie low, be cautious, and be presidential, or something. All his earlier criticism of Obama’s foreign policy was gone, replaced by broad consensus between the two about America’s role in the world and president Obama’s foreign policy.
On Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, the war on terror including the drone attacks against terrorists in various countries, and, yes, even on Libya, Romney took positions very close to Obama’s. By refraining from attacking Obama, Romney had clearly made a decision not to seem like a war hawk, not to seem belligerent and someone seeking new conflicts and new wars for America in the Middle East. By doing so, he moved towards the political center, towards a more moderate policy – he became a “man of peace,” as someone said, probably jokingly, afterwards.
Romney’s transition seemed to startle Obama a bit, although the president kept up his attacks, calling Romney’s foreign policy “all over the map” and charging him for trying to “air brush history.” And while expressing his satisfaction that Romney now supported the administration’s diplomatic efforts in that volatile region, Obama could not refrain from sticking it to Romney when possible. Romney’s charge that the U.S. navy now has fewer ships since 1916 was met by, maybe, the “zinger” of the evening – Obama saying that the military now also had fewer bayonets and horses than in 1916…
Why the subdued, cautious Romney? Was he playing it safe in a race that now seemed more even than ever? Maybe. But as a result, he came to stand in stark contrast to a firm, straight talking, decisive president, who said he had done what he promised to do when he became president, and that he was the best one to lead America in the next four years.
Will what happened in this final debate matter? We don’t know yet. The two previous debates between Obama and Romney had each been watched by almost 70 million people. Last night’s debate most likely had fewer viewers. Foreign policy is not the main theme of this campaign. And most voters seem to have made up their minds by now. The number of undecided are very few and the remaining two weeks of the campaign will be more about getting out the vote — turnout can decide this election, which is so crucial for America and this country’s future.