Editorial Board

The Least Enlightening Debate

Someone apparently forgot to tell Mitt Romney about last night’s foreign-policy debate. He didn’t come to debate, and he wasn’t eager to talk about foreign policy.

Instead, the Republican presidential nominee strained to identify areas of agreement with U.S. President Barack Obama on Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and even China. (That left five of the seven continents -- most of them populated, and at least one in dire crisis -- barely mentioned.) Romney also took every chance he could to turn the discussion back to the U.S. economy.

This made the campaign’s final debate its most tedious and least enlightening. Unlike their first two meetings, this debate featured no flashes of anger and will cause no partisan freakouts. Bland generalities were the order of the night.

To say that Obama got the better of Romney on substance, and he did, is almost beside the point. Obama repeatedly called for more specifics and exposed Romney’s inexperience; he was especially good on Romney’s empty talking points on Pentagon spending. The question is which Romney Obama got the better of.

In his first answer of the night, Obama castigated Romney for his “wrong and reckless” views. He may have been referring to the Romney of the Republican primaries, or the Romney of the Republican convention, or even the Romney who issued a series of increasingly bellicose news releases in the hours leading up to the debate. That Romney was mostly absent last night. “I want to see growing peace in this country,” he said, in delivery as much as sentiment sounding more like the 41st president than the 43rd.

This (latent? convenient? both?) moderation is welcome. Yet there are nagging concerns. One, of course, is how much to trust what Romney is saying. As Obama said last night, Romney has been “all over the map” on the Middle East and other topics. Another is to figure out exactly what Romney is saying.

In his discussion of Pakistan, for example, he sounded as if he was reading a Wikipedia entry. Asked whether the U.S. should “divorce” Pakistan because of its truculence in the fight against terrorists, Romney said -- rightly -- no. His explanation, however, was not his finest moment. Well, he said, Pakistan has 100 nuclear warheads. It has a strong military, and there are a lot of terrorists there. It’s in an important part of the world. We need to help build Pakistani civil society. Pakistan has 100 nuclear warheads.

Moderation is defined by substance and tone. If he is going to convincingly complete the transition from severely conservative to agreeably moderate, Romney needs to get better at explaining himself. Last night, Romney’s summary of his foreign policy was: same as Obama’s -- except better.

After Pakistan and a brief detour to China, it was on to Detroit. Detroit, according to the latest tracking polls, is part of the U.S. Still, it has a valid place in a foreign-policy debate; the U.S. auto industry is global. Unfortunately, the discussion focused less on what either man would do improve the industry’s competitiveness than on what Romney wrote for the op-ed page of the New York Times four years ago. (Like most such headlines, this one -- “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” -- captured its gist if not its nuances.)

There is a case to be made -- and no less than the president of the Council on Foreign Relations has made it -- that a foreign-policy debate is an anachronism; the line between national and international issues is eroding. It’s also clear, this year especially, that the candidates want to talk about nothing more than their plans to improve the economy. Last night’s debate was mostly a missed opportunity to show where and how the two themes intersect.

In that respect, it was a disappointing finale to a series of debates that will be remembered for their substance and drama. Now all that’s left on the civic calendar is Election Day itself. If current polls are any indication, that will be plenty dramatic, too.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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