Any viewer watching Monday night’s foreign policy-centered presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida, would have been hard-pressed to discern what America’s actual foreign policy challenges might be.
President Barack Obama mentioned Israel, by a preliminary count, 22 times, but not once did he note the European debt crisis that threatens to throw the US economy back into recession. Despite polling over many years showing the exact opposite to be true, the two campaigns seem to believe that the Jews of Florida, a supposed swing vote in the largest of swing states, are more worried about the distinction between Republican and Democratic policies on Israel than about continued economic hardship for themselves and their families. From early in the debate it was clear that each candidate was seeking to outdo the other in stressing pro-Israel credentials.
Mitt Romney, meanwhile, spent the evening insisting he would act very differently from the president when it came to facing the “tumult” of the Middle East, but could not clearly explain what that difference might be. In fact, the only clarity he offered was not about his differences with Obama, but about his disagreements with Obama’s Republican predecessor. I’m not Bush, he seemed to say again and again.
On Syria, he said: “We don’t want to have military involvement there. We don’t want to get drawn into a military conflict.”
On Iran, the goal is “to dissuade Iran from having a nuclear weapon through peaceful and diplomatic means….and of course a military action is the last resort.”
In case any viewers missed the point, in his closing remarks he said the word “peace” twice and asserted that America under his stewardship would “continue to promote principles of peace that will make the world a safer place.”
What little substantive discussion there was about foreign policy seemed tailored to appeal not to the candidates’ ideological camps, but to the opinions of independent voters.
Romney urged diplomacy with Iran because while Republicans may have the stomach for military action to stop Iran’s race to build nuclear weapons, independents are far less keen about the prospect — and comprise most of the undecided voters.
As the Pew Research Center noted in early October, 84 percent of Republicans favor taking “a firm stand” against Iran’s nuclear program and just 13% say they would prefer to “avoid military conflict.” Independents, meanwhile, favor that “firm stand” by a much narrower 53% to 39%.
In similar fashion, Obama talked about Israel a great deal not to energize his Democratic supporters – only 9% of whom believe the US does not support Israel enough – but to attract independents, among whom fully 24% believe the US should do more.
Overall, independents heavily favor (72%-19%) America becoming “less involved” in the Middle East’s political turmoil, a fact that might explain both candidates’ efforts to avoid detailing any specific actions they might take in the Middle East.
Foreign policy, as the foreign policy portion of the debate suggested, was a stumbling block on the way to a more important conversation. And much of the world got short shrift: Europe and its looming debt-driven collapse, the growing economies of Africa south of Mali or Asia outside China, and even Mexico, the source of tens of millions of immigrants and a tense border rife with a violent drug war.
Instead, the candidates seemed to want to discuss the auto industry, energy production, manufacturing jobs, trade, the federal deficit, environmental regulation, teachers and education reform – anything, it seemed, but foreign policy.
And they were right to do so. The American electorate is interested in the Middle East only insofar as it has soldiers engaged in the region and hopes to prevent the next terror attack on American soil. It is interested in China only insofar as it represents a competitor in trade and labor costs.
The voters’ disinterest in foreign policy is particularly relevant for Romney, who is seen by most Americans as competent on economics more than foreign policy or social issues.
A late September Gallup poll found that most Americans believe Obama would best handle social issues such as abortion and gay marriage (59%-33%), foreign policy (53%-41%) and healthcare (51%-45%), while Romney is favored to handle the economy (49%-45%) and the federal budget deficit (52%-39%).
That may be good news for Romney, as three topics, “the economy,” “unemployment” and “the federal budget deficit,” were listed as the three most important election issues according to respondents to a February Gallup poll.
For Romney, lingering over foreign policy is bad PR that doesn’t help him leverage his relative advantage on economic issues.
Indeed, Romney leads Obama on only one foreign policy issue, according to Pew: “China’s trade policies,” where he enjoys a 9-percentage-point lead.
As Monday’s debate demonstrated, China is viewed by most Americans as a domestic economic issue – and an important one. According to a different Pew poll earlier this year, “fully 78% [of Americans] said the large amount of American debt held by China is a very serious problem for the United States, while 71% said the loss of US jobs to China is a very serious problem. About six-in-ten (61%) viewed the US trade deficit with China as a very serious problem.”
The figures were similar among Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike, suggesting that undecided voters are likely just as concerned about Chinese trade and debt questions as committed voters.
Perhaps that is why Romney’s demeanor seemed to change dramatically when the conversation shifted from Libya or Syria to China, trade deficits and the US automotive industry.
And in case any viewers had lingering doubts about the central salient issue of this election, the candidates themselves dispelled those doubts in their own closing statements.
After paying lip service to overseas strength, Obama quickly attacked Romney’s economic policies, which “won’t create jobs, won’t reduce our deficits, but will make sure that folks at the very top don’t have to play by the same rules that you do.”
His own plan, Obama explained, would “make sure we’re bringing manufacturing jobs back to our shores by rewarding companies and small businesses that are investing here, not overseas. I want to make sure we’ve got the best education system in the world, retaining our workers for the jobs of tomorrow.”
He went on to promise to “control our own energy… reduce our deficit… [and ask] the wealthy to do a little bit more.”
“After a decade of war,” he quipped, “I think we all realize we have to do some nation-building here at home.”
Romney, too, stuck to economics. After touching on foreign policy briefly, Romney told viewers he wanted “to make sure we get this economy going” and to “get us on a path to a balanced budget.” He promised to raise Americans’ take-home pay and help businesses generate millions of new jobs.
In 1992, Bill Clinton faced an incumbent president who was perceived as successful on foreign policy but oversaw difficult economic conditions. Clinton argued effectively that the election wasn’t about the first Gulf War or “family values,” but rather, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
On Monday night, both candidates used their last unscripted and unfiltered appearance before the American people to make the same argument. Both fought to take control of the center, to attract the independent voter, and to convey with Clinton-esque clarity that they understood what Americans really cared about in this election.