“Bayonets and horses” one-liner wins debate for Obama, but will it impress voters

My take on the third and final presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Gov Mitt Romney, from tonight;s Evening Herald.  The print edition features an abridged version of the full piece below.


If recent polls are right then last night’s presidential debate outcome will please about 95% of us, even if a deal on Irish bank debt never made the agenda!

Derek Mooney column as it appeared in print version

In their third encounter President Obama again came out on top, but Romney was not too far behind. While Obama has been slipping in the polls since even before the first debate, he still leads Romney on the issue of foreign relations and he showed why last night.

He has, after all, been dealing with foreign affairs for the past four years, while Romney has just been studying it for the past few months. President Obama is the man who took the US out of Iraq, the man who focused on finding and eliminating of Bin Ladin. Then again George Bush I was the man who presided over the fall of communism and drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, but found his re-election bid frustrated by the weakened economy.

Last night’s confrontation was not nearly as fierce as the previous debate, partly because it focussed on foreign affairs, but largely because the two men were seated throughout.

For this rsason their individual body language was not as noticeable as it had been last time. Their words had to carry the force of their argument – and they did. Both went on the attack – Obama attacked Romney’s grasp of the issues, while Romney dismissed the President’s foreign policy record as faltering.

Obama had the one-liner of the night. He countered Romney’s criticism that the US Navy has fewer ships now that it had 1916: ad libbing that they also had fewer bayonets and horses. Obama’s prepared put down saying that Romney’s foreign policy was from the 80s, his social policy was from the 50s and his economic policy was from the 20s was good, but not as effective.

The reality that dare not speak its name last night is the fact that foreign relations is not nearly as important as everyone likes to pretend.

Despite the high flown rhetoric from both on America’s place in the world, this election is about the contents of the ordinary man or woman’s wallet – no other issue comes closer.

Yes, America’s attitudes to the Middle East, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria are important, but these will not decide the outcome of this election, jobs and living standards will.

The two candidates as good as admitted this as they wove the economy and domestic concerns into their replies. The purpose of the debate was not so much to debate foreign policy, but to see how both candidates could handle complex issues.

As with the past two debates the role of the moderator was almost as important as the performances of the two contenders. Across the three debates it has had something of a Goldilocks quality to it. In the first Jim Lehrer was judged to have taken a bit of a back seat. Candy Crowley, the moderator of the second debate was accused of taking too big a role in the encounter, framing supplementary questions and, most notably, pulling up Gov Romney on his alleged misquoting of the President.

If Lehrer and Crowley had made the presidential porridge too cold or too hot, last night’s moderator, veteran news man Bob Schieffer, worked to get the balance just right. Schieffer was more forceful than his close friend Lehrer in enforcing the agreed rules, but was less interventionist than Crowley.

Most american commentators agree that these have been the most exciting debates in decades, but they have not done much to reduce the numbers of undecided voters.

As in previos elections the debates have envigorated those whi have already decided who they will support. The battle for undecideds will be won or lost on the ground in a handful of states, particularly Ohio.

The outcome of this election will be tight, the next fortnight will be fraught.


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