The Dangerously Agreeable Mitt Romney

This is part of a continuing dialogue between Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru about the 2012 campaign.

Margaret: Like the law professor he once was, President Barack Obama toted up every incautious thing Mitt Romney had ever said at last night's debate, although he held back until later bringing up Romney’s tour abroad, during which he offended almost everyone he met. Obama criticized Romney's past statements on Russia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Pakistan.

How do you debate someone who wants to be like you without saying so? If there's one poll Romney's read, it's that Obama gets high approval for his handling of national security. Romney’s world view was platitudinous -- let’s avoid conflict wherever possible, let’s stand for our principles, and, yes, military action should be a last resort. Romney became as severe a moderate as he was a severe conservative during the primaries. He would do much of what Obama is doing only in a louder voice. He’s a better friend of Israel, he favors tighter sanctions on Iran, he’d be tougher on China but not so much that he wouldn’t increase trade with China, and drones? Bring them on. The Romney Doctrine as it emerged in this debate was a proto-Obama Doctrine.

Both candidates turned to the economy wherever possible. Romney ticked off the five points (although I counted at least six) that survived from his earlier 59-point plan, and it’s likely to be as memorable. At one point, Romney was talking about fourth-grader test scores in Massachusetts.

If these debates prove one thing, it is that moderators have limited influence over two alpha males. But let’s congratulate Bob Schieffer for his successful attempts to do so: My favorite was “Yes, we all love teachers” when Romney enunciated his umpteenth aphorism of the night. From the candidates, the high point was Obama responding to Romney’s criticism of cuts to the Navy. Obama patiently explained, as to a first grader, that yes, we have fewer ships than in 1916. We also have fewer horses and bayonets.

Obama could hardly get an argument going as Romney set out to still his rattling saber and leave the new wars to the neocons. It's hard to critique someone’s who is changing all the time. Obama was reduced to showing how creating effective sanctions was painstaking work, not the simple thing Romney was talking about, especially when you have to bring along unwilling partners such as Russia and China. When Romney jumped on Obama for his so-called apology tour, Obama pointed out how, when he was a candidate for president, he didn’t take donors along for the ride. Romney was in such a kumbaya mode that he praised Obama for getting Osama bin Laden. Obama didn’t take the compliment lying down, reminding Romney that he said he wouldn’t move heaven and earth to get him and would have asked Pakistan for permission.

Before you knew it our worldwide tour was over, and we were back in Wisconsin and lo and behold Michigan. Romney thinks he can rewrite his "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” op-ed if he just pulls out his No. 2 pencil again. He was so riled up he did his “I’m still speaking” when Obama tried to point out there was no private investment willing to help get the auto companies out of bankruptcy.

In his close, Obama reprised his convention speech, and Romney loaded on the innocuous homilies: He wants peace, and to promote principles of peace to make sure the future is more peaceful and prosperous.

As do we all. Goodnight Bob, goodnight Ramesh. This is how debate season ends: not with a bang but a whimper.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow her on Twitter.)

Ramesh: All year long, inevitability has been the theme of the Obama campaign. Not last night. The polls and pundits may disagree among themselves, but both candidates at the debate were acting as though Romney is in the lead. Obama launched attack after attack on Romney to bring him back down to his level. Romney generally refused to engage in the hope of looking presidential. Each time Romney was asked a question, he went with the answer that made him look thoughtful and grown-up rather than the one that would score the most points against Obama.

Romney obviously worried that coming across as a warmonger would threaten his lead, too. Like you, Margaret, I was struck by how un-neoconservative this debate was. Romney's twin imperatives -- not getting into a brawl with Obama, not looking too aggressive on foreign policy -- led him to agree with the president again and again. Romney’s tactic clearly frustrated Obama. Did his visible frustration register with voters as a justified response to Romney’s slipperiness, or as weakness? Obama didn’t look bored and detached, as in the first debate. I’m not sure fixing Romney with the death stare was an improvement.

Best line for Romney: His repeated jibe that Obama’s attacks on him don’t add up to an agenda for the country. I agree with you, Margaret, that Obama scored a direct hit against Romney when he said that the Republican's foreign policy amounts to doing what the president has done, only louder.

In addition to agreeing about Iran and Afghanistan, both candidates seemed to agree that voters don’t care about foreign policy. Both used every opportunity to move the debate back to domestic themes: We heard more about teachers than about Latin America. Obama repeated John Kerry’s 2004 line about the need for “nation-building here at home” several times. The line is premised on an accurate read of the public mood, which is why even Obama’s effective attacks on Romney didn’t change the campaign’s course. Advantage Romney.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)

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