At the risk of engaging in more “despair porn” — I like that phrase actually, though I don’t think I should Google it to find its origin lest I find a whole lot more that is likely to scar my soul — I think the third debate is going to be very difficult for the president.
I agree with the general notion that foreign policy ought to be a big strength for Obama. That issue was one the things I most liked about him when I first started to support him in 2007, and except for the disastrous 2009 Afghanistan decision, I have mostly quibbles with him on foreign policy. Obama gets foreign policy in a fundamental way, while Romney is both a rank amateur and unfortunately largely surrounded by crackpots.
That said, it is pretty obvious where Romney is going to go in the third debate. He laid out his line of attacks in his VMI speech. He’ll claim Obama has been too soft on Iran, too hard on Israel, and generally weak in the Middle East. He will argue that Obama has been too willing to “lead from behind,” whereas American interests and greatness require us to lead from the front.
What bothers me is this: While Obama is actually right on all of these issues, it is actually very hard to frame the argument succinctly. Obama’s positions are subtle, balanced, thoughtful, but not easily reduced to a bumper sticker.
Consider Israel. If anything, I’d like to see Obama be even tougher on Israel, particularly in demanding progression on the Palestinian front. But it is a complex issue. Sure, there is a concise argument to make about the simple illegality and immorality of the the 45 year-old occupation and demand immediate, full Palestinian statehood. But (a) this is not Obama’s position and (b) it would be politically disastrous to frame the issue for the American public purely around Palestinian rights.
The real answer is much more complex. It talks to the leadership dynamics and failures on both sides; acknowledges legitimate Israeli security concerns, which noting the long-term counter-productive nature of current policies; highlights the illegimate nature of Israeli settlement policy, while recognizing the fact that Jerusalem is going to need to be a topic of further negotiation; places the issue in a regional context; and so on.
It isn’t that I despair of Obama being able to make this argument coherently. Rather, it is quite easy to imagine in a situation where Romney launches sound-bite-sized attacks and Obama is forced to respond with what will seem like rambling, ambiguous defenses.
Obama has the best single sound-bite, of course, “How about we ask bin Laden if he thinks I’m too soft?” or some variation of that, but Obama’s positions on Israel, Iran, and global leadership while sound are also going to come off as fuzzy and academic to many.
And the other problem, of course, is that Romney will simply blunt any Obama attack by just denying he ever said what he is accused of, fact-checkers and video evidence to the contrary be damned.
Again, I am not saying Obama is going to lose either the third debate or the election. I’m just saying, I think the foreign policy debate is going to be a tough nut to crack in terms of exposing Romney as a dangerous fraud.