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Critical issues debated among candidates

Nicole Michels | Wednesday, October 24, 2012

In the final debate of the 2012 campaign on Monday, little contrast emerged between the foreign policies of President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, leading to what political science professor Sebastian Rosato called a ” thoroughly boring” debate.


Rosato said the debate, moderated by CBS News’ Bob Schieffer at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., was far from contentious. 


“In terms of performance, I think Obama by all accounts won the debate – that’s what the polls are showing,” Rosato said. “But I think this was just because he seemed more assured, it certainly wasn’t because he won any particular points.”


Political science professor Michael Desch said Romney’s performance paled in comparison because he did not look the part of commander in chief as much as Obama did.


“The one thing Governor Romney needed to do was to look presidential on the foreign policy stage,” Desch said.  “Especially after his missteps on his great European adventure this summer, it was even more imperative for him to establish his bona fides, and I don’t think he achieved that last night.”


This lack of fire can be attributed to the recent laser-focus on domestic issues, Rosato said. 


“I think [voters] are very inattentive to foreign affairs and the debate was reflective of that,” Rosato said.  “I think the debate will have no effect and I think the measure of that is that the candidates kept trying to talk about domestic policies … there was an awareness in the debate that foreign policy was not going to swing American voters.”


Though the motivation for guarding the United States’ position as the world’s economic leader is obvious, the candidates used this reasoning as an excuse to revisit domestic politics, Rosato said.


“This debate was about foreign policy, and about a quarter of the air time was taken up with domestic policies and saying points again like Romney’s $5 million tax cut and Obama’s inability to create jobs,” Rosato said.  “The question is why did this happen?  If you think about it cynically, they didn’t find anything to disagree with on foreign policy, so they started talking about the domestic economy because at least there they can separate themselves.”


Few people are voting based on foreign policy, but if that were to be made the deciding factor the choice would be unclear, Rosato said.


“Because [Barack Obama’s] hawkish, it’s very difficult for Mitt Romney to differentiate himself from Obama – I mean, what’s he going to say: ‘I would have already attacked Iran?’ [or] ‘I would have stayed in Iraq longer?'” Rosato said.  “There’s nothing he could say – you can’t be more hawkish than Obama without sounding as if you want to wander all over the world getting into wars, and no candidate wants to say that.”


The discussion of the most recent conflicts in Syria and the tumult in Egyptian government made this awareness of the complex role of the U.S. very clear, Desch said.


“The argument that it is a lack of American leadership that was responsible for the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt or the lack of a resolved civil war in Syria is not one that you’d want to make seriously. They’re much more complicated issues,” Desch said.  “In particular, the issue of what you do about the [former Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak government highlights the complexity of the issue facing the United States, and it was telling that Romney was not very critical of President Obama [on this issue].”


After examining the statements by each of the candidates, Rosato said he found minor points of difference between the candidates.


“When they were talking about Iran, Obama said that an Iran with a nuclear weapon is unacceptable to the United States, while Romney said Iran with a nuclear capability is unacceptable to the United States,” Rosato sad.  “That is a subtle difference that might have bigger implications.”


Political science professor Robert Johansen said he believed the most important issue pertaining to U.S. national security is determining how to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.


“The two candidates did not significantly disagree last night on how to proceed, although Romney had previously sounded more belligerent toward Iran and ready to threaten war against Iran,” Johansen said.  “Romney clearly was moderating his stance to appear more peaceful than indicated in previous statements.”


Desch said Romney’s overall performance did not overcome the strength of Obama’s foreign policy record in the debate.    


“I think Romney faced two problems: One is that the incumbent tends to have decided advantages. The president’s been commander in chief for four years, the president has a [foreign policy] record and experience that he can point to,” Desch said.  “The truth of the matter is that there’s not much a challenger can really do that’s different from an incumbent, a lot of foreign policy is determined by factors that would push presidents from any policy in the same direction.