The Boca Raton presidential debate on foreign policy: panel verdict | The Guardian

Heather Hurlburt: ‘Obama scored zinger after zinger’

We heard a lot of talk right after Monday’s foreign policy debate about Mitt Romney passing or not passing the “commander-in-chief test”. That may sound as if it means: can the public imagine him bayoneting Syrian President Assad while riding a horse, or ordering a military strike against Iran. But in the last weeks of a campaign, it means something much more specific.

Romney has had either 18 months or five years, depending how you’re counting, to introduce his commander-in-chief bona fides to the full range of American voters. In the final weeks of a close race, his task was a different one: convincing undecided and middle-of-the road voters, who seem, this cycle, to be disproportionately women, that he is a likeable, moderate guy with solutions to the problems they face.

As I have written elsewhere, polling continues to find that women are less receptive to violence and conflict-based solutions to problems than men. They – as well as moderates – disproportionately prefer Obama’s approach to national security policy. This is why “last night’s” Mitt Romney used the word “peace” so many times, and was so anxious to agree with President Obama’s plans to remove US troops from Afghanistan, refuse to send US troops to Syria and intervene militarily in Iran only as a last resort.

But for this to work, Romney had to do more than hug Obama on substance and find smart-sounding attack lines. He needed to come up with positive alternatives: what is the Middle East policy that will get rid of the murderous Assad, convince Israelis and Palestinians to come to terms and provoke the Arab streets to love us? What should the next administration do about the magical opportunity he invoked in Latin America? What tools are there he can deploy that Obama does not have to convince Iran to drop its nuclear program?

Commentators – and not just Democrats – have been hitting Romney on his lack of substance, since the spring. Bill Kristol, Peggy Noonan, Colin Powell, Danielle Pletka have all at various times suggested that his vague positions lacked seriousness. “Think, Mitt,” Powell pleaded after the “Russia No 1 geopolitical foe” comment.

Romney had a run of misfortunes with his foreign policy outings: missteps on his Europe and Israel trip, criticism over politicization of the VMI speech venue, omission of Afghanistan and veterans from his convention speech. So, to come off seriously and successfully as a moderate, he needed to shut down Obama’s critique of him.

And here he failed. Obama scored zinger after zinger: a decade wants its military policy back – a military of cavalry and bayonets, and on and on. Effective responses were few and far between, which meant Romney was allowing Obama to fire up his own base and sow doubts in Romney’s target audience.

The insta-polls last night, whatever they may say about the race itself, reflected Romney’s failure to move from a candidate with a critique to a leader with bullet-proof, or at least quip-proof, policy alternatives.

The polls showed it; the dial-tests showed it; the pundit analyses showed it. Romney made a full run at Obama’s dominance on national security, and didn’t shake it. It remains to be seen how profound this impact is on the race, but the conventional wisdom about the politics of American national security, marked for three decades by progressives’ fear of conservative dominance and mockery, will never be the same.

Heather Hurlburt is executive director of the National Security Network

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