One of the first rules of etiquette in debate is that you do not make personal attacks on your opponent. Last night, President Obama — who has so loudly, so frequently, so eloquently, so passionately and, we may add, so self-righteously — deplored the decline of civility in American politics, broke that rule. Not once, but repeatedly.
Mr. Obama was supercilious, condescending and just plain rude to Mr. Romney. Within the first few minutes of the debate, he accused Mr. Romney of wanting to, “import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.” If that were not enough, he later affected to explain aircraft carriers and submarines to his opponent: “We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.” He also attacked Mr. Romney’s visit to Israel as being nothing more than a campaign fundraiser.
But Mr. Obama’s calculated rudeness smacked of desperation. For this debate to affect the outcome of the election, Mr. Obama had to do more than show that he had more foreign policy experience than Mr. Romney. After all, everyone knew that from the beginning. He had to prove that Mr. Romney was incompetent to handle the nation’s foreign policy. And that he failed to do.
Mr. Romney kept his cool, showed that he had done his homework, and frequently pushed back aggressively.
So Mr. Obama overplayed his hand. He said that America is stronger now than when he took office, and that our alliances have never been stronger, “in Asia, in Europe, in Africa, with Israel where we have unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation, including dealing with the Iranian threat.”
With our embassies recently attacked in Libya, Egypt and Yemen, just how many people really believe that America is stronger today than four years ago? And with relations between Mr. Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu dripping with icicles, how many people really believe that U.S.-Israeli ties have never been stronger?
However many individual points Mr. Obama may have scored during the debate, he failed in his principal objective, which was to persuade the American people that they couldn’t trust Mr. Romney to conduct the nation’s foreign policy.
For that reason, it appears likely that Mr. Romney’s popular momentum will be un-Mitt-i-gated by last night’s exchange.
Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com.