For much of this long campaign season, Mitt Romney has criticized President Obama for projecting weakness abroad, for failing “to shape history” in the Middle East, for allowing American influence to recede. The Republican presidential candidate touched all those buttons in the third debate on Monday evening. Yet most curious was the way he attempted to diminish his differences with the president, attempting again as Election Day nears to massage and shape his views, thinking more tactically, or cynically, as a candidate than strategically as a president.
Practically all candidates engage in such rounding of edges. The Romney focus for this final debate appeared plain: He wanted to appear in the commander-in-chief role, nothing edgy, no gaffes, leaving voters more comfortable with the idea of his presence in the Oval Office. Yet listen closely, and an old problem surfaced: What would Romney actually do? What does he really think?
The expectation isn’t that the candidate fire policy points in the way he portrays the president’s record. Rather, it matters that he share a clear direction. In his column on today’s Commentary page, Michael Gerson applauded Romney for embracing “continuity.” That is a generous evaluation.
Take, for instance, the proposed exit from Afghanistan in 2014. Romney has scolded the president for setting a firm deadline. He has argued that he would listen to the generals, suggesting the president hasn’t done so. Yet, in the debate, he seemed to side firmly with the president on the departure date two years from now. Which thinking would drive his administration?
Part of the doubt stems from ideological wrangling within the Republican Party and his own foreign policy team. Romney long has signaled his willingness to take a more aggressive line in Syria, perhaps arming directly the rebels. In the debate, he seemed more attuned to the subtleties of the president’s position, alert to the potential harm in becoming more deeply involved.
So it went. Romney dialed back the bellicose talk about Iran, again sounding more like the president he has cudgeled, offering little about steps beyond the severe sanctions the president has organized? Romney wants to spend an additional $2 trillion on defense. He passed once more on the question of how the country would benefit, let alone how the sum would fit into his plans for fiscal discipline.
No wonder the president told his opponent: “You’ve been all over the map.” At that infamous fund-raiser in Florida last spring, Romney explained that in the Middle East peace process “you hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem.” On Monday evening, he pledged to “recommit America” to the process, to Palestinians and Israelis “living side by side in peace and security.” Which Romney would it be?