An Inconsequential Debate

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The third presidential debate leaves me with little to say. I was ready to point out that despite the obligatory show of disagreement--American exceptionalism and overwhelming force on Romney's side; partnerships, caution, drone strikes and calculation on Obama's--the two men agree about most aspects of policy once you get down to specifics. So much for that line of analysis. No show of disagreement, rather the reverse. No memorable errors either.

As in the second debate, Obama seemed the more articulate and assured of the two. He certainly had the better lines (horses and bayonets, etc). His comment about the importance of clarity--a bit rich, coming from him--skewered Romney pretty well and cleverly linked the prevailing Romnesia narrative to foreign policy. But neither man had much of substance to say. Obama described his successes to good effect, and Romney mostly chose not to quarrel with him. Both gave heavily padded statements of goals--peace, security, competitiveness, other brave ideas--but never really engaged on how those ambitions can best be realized. (The key, both men agreed, is strong but prudent leadership. No doubt.) I was surprised Romney didn't press harder on Syria. Too risky, he must have calculated. Above all he had to avoid the suspicion that he would take America into another inessential war.

On Romney's behalf you could say Obama came off as a little too hostile, maybe too interested in Romney's flip-flops and not enough in what he, Obama, intends to do. You could say Obama began with a bigger advantage than in the other debates, because foreign policy especially favors the incumbent, and that Romney nonetheless did what he mainly had to do: offer reassurance that he wasn't a bomb-happy war-monger and present himself as a plausible commander-in-chief.

In all, I'd say, a win for Obama, but not a consequential one. It's hard to avoid concluding that if Obama had performed this well in the Denver debate--the one that first gave wavering voters permission to think seriously about Romney--this election would be as good as over. But he didn't.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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