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Debating What They Wanted

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney may both have gotten exactly what they wanted from this week’s final presidential debate.

President Obama, widely seen as the loser in the opening debate that infused new momentum into Romney’s campaign earlier this month, went all-out to win Tuesday’s contest. By most accounts, he did.

The president was firm and concise. His attacks on what he called Romney’s “all over the map” foreign policy positions were slashing, at times verging on belittling. Often, Romney himself endorsed the general thrust of Obama’s remarks: Killing Osama bin Laden was a good thing, they agreed, while a nuclear-armed Iran would be a very bad thing.

Romney did not appear all that interested in winning the debate, and I suspect that is because he wasn’t. Romney seemed more interested in winning the election.

We will have to wait two more weeks to see how that works out, but we can make some educated guesses about Romney’s strategy. In a race where Obama’s supporters have characterized the Republican as a self-interested plutocrat and a chest-thumping neocon, Romney himself has worked to come across as the voice of duty tempered by reason. Romney channeled Robert Young in Father Knows Best, while Obama filled the role of Paul Muni in The Last Angry Man. “We can’t kill our way out of this mess,” Romney told the president, in what was probably Romney’s best line of the night.

Let’s grant the possibility (which Obama partisans probably see as a certainty) that Romney was out of his depth on foreign affairs, that he did not know the U.S. Navy has aircraft carriers, and that he was not capable of capitalizing on opportunities to impugn Obama’s record. Romney noted, for example, that the administration’s failure to conclude a “status of forces” agreement in Iraq has left us no operational presence in that country. After Obama responded that Romney wanted to maintain 10,000 American troops in Iraq, Romney could have pointed out that the number the president ended up getting - zero - has allowed Iranian planes to freely cross Iraqi airspace, providing Syria’s embattled strongman, Bashar al-Assad, with vital manpower and supplies. But Romney let it go. Why?

Maybe he is just a bad debater who lucked into a good night a few weeks ago, but that seems unlikely. Romney has been in about two dozen face-offs in a campaign season that included the seemingly endless Republican primaries. He is in a virtually tied race for the presidency less than two weeks from Election Day. Chances are he knows what he’s doing out there.

So what was he doing? I think he was talking to a 40-year-old mother of a 15-year-old son in Dayton, Ohio. He was telling her, “I have no intention of asking your child to enlist in the military a few years from now to fight another war. I think I can avoid war by taking firm positions backed by a strong military. If that means American kids won’t see as much Big Bird on TV, that’s an acceptable trade-off. I want your son to be able to find work so he’ll have other career options besides the military, if that isn’t his highest calling. I have five sons myself. My wife will never let me forget it.”

Obama’s campaign has been mainly about presenting Romney as an unacceptable choice. The race pivoted after the first debate, not because Romney was a better debater that night, but because the man on that Denver stage was not the man in the Obama campaign’s caricatures. Romney’s approach to the second and third debates, while much softer than in the first, was similar in this respect. He was telling voters, “The guy Obama is describing is not me.” Obama has reacted with frustration, lashing out at “Romnesia,” because Romney refuses to utter the lines called for in the president’s campaign script.

Current wisdom holds that political moderates and independents want Washington to collectively put aside ideological differences and find ways to work together. Both candidates claim to be the person who can do that. But after years of gridlocked relations with Congress, Obama has a difficult time conveying himself this way. He probably did not help his cause if he came across in the debate as angry, sarcastic or certain of his own superiority. Romney simply reminded viewers that he was a Republican governor of one of the most Democratic states in the nation, and he found ways to work with his Legislature.

At a couple of points, I simply closed my eyes and listened to the voices. Obama is the one who entered Congress representing the Midwest, but his cadence and diction sounded like what he is: a Harvard-trained lawyer. Romney, too, is a Harvard-trained lawyer (and MBA), but his voice had the mellow Midwestern tones that are familiar to middle-aged and older voters. He didn’t sound like George W. Bush. To me, he sounded like Ronald Reagan.

That’s not going to play well with university professors, at Harvard or anywhere else. Obama has their votes sewed up. But in battlegrounds like Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa, Romney sent safe, reassuring nonverbal signals. I’m firm but reasonable. I’m determined but not angry. I’m not in this because it’s good for my ego; I’m in this because I think I can be good for the country.

A lot of Americans will think this is malarkey, to borrow Joe Biden’s term. The message was not aimed at them. It was aimed at a few specific voters in a few specific states.

In their closing statements, I thought President Obama sounded like a lawyer delivering his summation, while Romney sounded like a salesman who wanted to close a deal.

Obama promised members of the jury, otherwise known as the electorate, “I will fight for your families” while “asking the wealthy to do a little bit more.” While Obama noted that he could do these things “if I have the privilege of being your president for another four years,” it was Romney who said simply and directly, “I ask for your vote.”

That first debate will be just a historical footnote if Obama wins the election. On the other hand, if Romney wins, that debate will be remembered as a turning point, and will probably get too much credit. A Romney victory will not happen because he is a better debater; this week’s performance proved that. It will happen because the president campaigned against an opponent who did not show up, and focused on winning debates that did not matter.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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