Who Won the Debate: Obama and Romney Tie in an Uninspired Foreign Policy Debate


Editor's Note: This represents instant analysis of the presidential debate on Monday night. For the author's thoughts in the hour immediately before the debate began, see here.

Here are my first impressions about the third debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on Monday evening:

1) The Big Points:

- Both men came across as confident and well-informed ... and, most important of all, neither committed any serious gaffes. Each campaign will of course seize on its opponent's alleged factual errors, and their respective partisans will likewise set cyberspace aflame with their righteous indignation. In the end, however, it is unlikely that anything which was said tonight will be remembered, much less referenced, two weeks hence. Even the eventual "winner" will likely be deemed as such by a margin so narrow that it won't result in any post-debate poll bounce.

- Just as notably, both men attempted to turn the conversation toward economic and social issues whenever possible - and wisely so. After all, polls show that the percentage of voters who care about foreign policy is in single digits. Barring an unanticipated foreign policy crisis in the next two weeks, it is unlikely that the issues broached in this debate will decide the outcome on November 6th.

2) Some Smaller Points:

- Things were more subdued than usual this evening. Naturally, there were a few sparks - from an early sparring over the Iraq War and Obama's joke about "horses and bayonets" to the later dispute over what Romney's statements about the auto industry - but in the end, each man seemed determined to remain on his best behavior. Perhaps their attitudes were influenced by the solemnity of the subject matter; perhaps the high-ranking advisers in both campaigns felt their candidate's best bet was to "play it safe." Regardless, this was the least entertaining of the four 2012 exchanges. When I predicted that this would be a "bellowing anticlimax," I was only half-right. This was an anticlimax precisely because there was no bellowing. I'd write that it was "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," but there would be one problem - the sound and fury never showed up.

- Shaffer's "Obama bin Laden" flub may prove to be the highlight of the evening. This is somewhat regrettable, since his performance was for the most part as exemplary as those turned in by Martha Raddatz and Candy Crowley (Jim Lehrer remains the proverbial He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named). Nevertheless, we are long past the days when people have had to get used to the president's name. The slip up may have been innocent, but it was still inexcusable (especially as it plays right into the latent bigotry still often targeted against this president).

- When I think of the great political debates from American history - between Daniel Webster and Robert Hayne in 1830, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858 - I think of sharp ideological differences being articulately and intelligently presented so that the people could better weigh the competing visions. This manifestly did not happen tonight. As demonstrated by their virtually identical responses to Shaffer's question regarding America's role in the world, Obama and Romney made it clear that they both support a neo-Wilsonian vision of internationalist activism. Tonight's discussion focused on whether Obama succeeded or failed in executing that philosophy, not on the legitimacy of the point-of-view itself. It serves as sad symbolism that the last major party presidential nominee to challenge that perspective was the one who passed away yesterday, George S. McGovern.

3) The Bottom Line:

- As I predicted, "the likelihood is that nothing which happen[ed] tonight will significantly change the shape of the race." There really isn't much more to say than that.