This is the last televised showdown between the two presidential candidates; one a Democratic incumbent who, until recently, was the presumptive victor and the other a Republican challenger with a very different vision for the country.
It is the detail of that vision that continues to cause concern for some within the Republican base and is failing to attract independent and disaffected Obama voters in the numbers needed for Romney to decisively win the election. In a performance at the last debate that left many on the right spluttering after his much better showing in the first round, Governor Romney has left large areas of what he would do if elected mostly blank with only 15 days to go before November 6th. Worse, he has flip-flopped over key Republican issues such as taxation for the rich and abortion that he has been painted as more indecisive than Bush portrayed Kerry in the ’04 election; President Obama has made much use of the #Romnesia social commentary.
“Here’s the good news: Obamacare covers pre-existing conditions! We can fix ya up! We’ve got a cure! We can you make you well! [..] This is a curable disease!”
Healthcare is perhaps an issue Romney should steer clear of completely in this debate. I’d say that he was in luck, given that the focus of the third debate will almost exclusively be on foreign affairs, but I’m not sure that the topical battle arena is one where Mitt can excel. Although the format of the third debate is expected to mirror the first debate, where Governor Romney did rather well, the candidates will be debating foreign rather than domestic policy; the steady-hand of CBS’s Bob Schieffer at the tiller.
Here’s what I’m looking for:
Weakened national security
I think this will be an area where Romney tries to score real points by painting Obama as a President who has presided over a weakening of American interests abroad and a decline in the perception of both American strength and image overseas. This should be fairly easy for Obama to throw back just by running through his accomplishments: he has drawn the Iraq war to a close and has set an exit strategy for the troops in Afghanistan at the same time as taking out public enemy #1 Osama bin Laden; he has also navigated the choppy waters of the Arab Spring with both minimal fallout and minimal effort. Romney’s two strongest lines of attack here are firstly whether Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon today than it was four years ago, and secondly the recent assassination of US Ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya. However Libya and Ambassador Stevens is a very dangerous line of attack for Governor Romney; it backfired horrendously for him in the second debate.
‘[..]the suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the secretary of state, our U.N. ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, Governor, is offensive. That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as President. That’s not what I do as Commander-in-Chief.’
And Iran doesn’t really leave Romney with much to say: his main line of attack has been to say that he would do more to constrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions through aggressive sanctions and a robust foreign policy. With the Obama administration having enacted the most severe sanctions in the history of relations between the two countries, there are few diplomatic solutions that are not already being explored. Given that defence spending is one of the only areas Romney is ringfencing from cuts, indeed says that he would increase the budget, it is not inconceivable for President Obama, at some point in the debate, to ask Governor Romney point-blank whether or not he is going to go to war with Iran. For a country wearied of over a decade of bloody war in the Middle East this could be exactly the win that Obama needs.
This has to come up. With Obama’s comment in the second debate that Romney is the last person who could get tough on China, Governor Romney really has to take control of this issue. Obama only has to continue to define China in terms of outsourcing of jobs whilst Romney was at Bain, and his own determined effort to fight China on trade to protect tyres and the US auto industry, for him to score easy points. Romney has to characterise himself as someone who can be tough (not just on China but around the world); I think this is something where Obama, as an incumbent, has a clear advantage.
As always, as a Brit, I’m hopeful that the special transatlantic relationship between the US and the UK will get a mention and a topic that I hope Obama can win without difficulty. President Obama warmly greeted Prime Minister David Cameron back in March, joked with him in front of the media and talked college basketball with him during a White House visit:
“Today we carry on another tradition, an official visit for one of our closest friends and our dearest allies… Our world has been transformed over and over, and it will be again. Yet, through the grand sweep of history, through all its twists and turns, there is one constant: the rock-solid alliance between the US and the UK.”
Mr Romney, whose great-great grandparents hailed from England and whose father-in-law was Welsh, was generous in his praise for the UK when he visited in the summer. But the trip will probably be remembered for him questioning the UK’s preparations for the Olympics, comments that caused a storm.
“It’s hard to know just how well it will turn out. There are a few things that were disconcerting, the stories about the private security firm not having enough people, the supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials, that obviously is not something which is encouraging.”
The key here is image, not the issues. The US electorate, by and large, do not care two hoots what goes on outside of the continental United States (they mostly don’t care about Hawaii or Alaska either). The questions are Bob Schieffer’s, not shared with campaigns or aides, and it is the 90 minutes of the debate that will burn into the television audience’s minds who they should elect to be the next President of the United States.