fter last week’s presidential debate, the popular vlogger Jay Smooth wondered why, exactly, we even go through this ritual every few years. “I hate that we’re picking a president based on this sports-entertainment that has nothing to do with being a good president,” Smooth said, comparing debating and commander-in-chiefing to the difference between battle rappers and successful recording artists. “Debating and running the country are two totally different skill sets.”
He’s right, of course. But these debates are useful in at least one big way: they help define the parameters of our mainstream political conversations, if not actual policies. Last night’s debate, the last between a deadlocked President Obama and Mitt Romney, focused on foreign policy, and it was a perfect example of this. Unsexy conversations about trade took a back seat to discussions that had military implications. Both candidates took it as a given that the U.S. should project military power overseas, and on the substance, there was very little difference between the two of them.
Romney, for the third straight debate, tacked to the center, and spent a lot of time agreeing with essentially Obama’s policies. China, which will soon be the biggest global player in the world besides the U.S., didn’t come up until the last third of the evening after there was various degrees of saber-rattling from both candidates regarding countries in the Muslim world. There was no mention of immigration and just a passing mention of Latin American trade. There were the usual shout-outs to Israel, no mention of Africa, and only a passing mention of Europe (where, you may have heard, things are happening).
But the United States’ policy on the use of unmanned aerial drones really only got half a bar last night, even though it effectively gives the President cart blanche to decide who he can kill in other countries and has serious human and geopolitical consequences. Mitt Romney said he would continue Obama’s use of them if he wins the Oval Office. This is now the basic, agreed-upon centrist position on drones in our national conversation. Just think about that for a second.
But let’s get away from the substance and onto the theater of it, because that’s how this is going to be judged. This was a pretty thorough ass-kicking from the President, who looked cool and in command of the facts — um, daily national security briefings and total command of the U.S. military makes these kinds of showdowns a little lopsided, one suspects — and the President took every chance to either point out that Romney was basically endorsing his current policies or to paint him as hawkish and naive. Obama called some of Romney’s proposals “wrong and reckless.” He was in his element, and he even got off some pretty good snark:
This Obama victory isn’t like to matter all that much in the polls, but even a small bounce could matter in a race as tight as this one. In a debate in which the material differences between the two opponents were pretty minor, perhaps that’s fitting.