Can both candidates win the debate?

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From what we’re seeing, it’s pretty clear that President Obama won last night’s debate. The CBS News instapoll showed Obama won 53% to 23%, The Fix declared it for Obama, and the New York Times Opinion Pages said Romney “often sounded completely lost” with “little coherent to say.”

The American media functions on the basis that there are winners and losers in every political clash. And on November 6, there definitely will be. But in a discussion where the candidates actually seem to overlap and, dare we use this word in politics, agree on certain policy courses of action, it’s sometimes hard to pick a winner. The debate has been described as “a waste of time” because it was 90-minutes of Mitt Romney following President Obama’s statements with “me, too” or “yeah, what he said.” But isn’t it also possible that both candidates succeeded in what they came to do even if it wasn’t particularly exciting for those of us watching?

The Cycle hosts, joined by Lt. Colonel Anthony Shaffer from The Center for Advanced Defense Studies and VP of the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars and former Middle East peace negotiator, Aaron David Miller, tried to make sense of this circumstance. On “substance and coherence,” there was no disagreement:  President Obama took home the prize. Barack Obama had “the powers of the incumbency” meaning “you have the intel, you’ve got the context, you talk about foreign policy all the time, the strategy, the details, you’re really good at this.” While Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan began receiving intelligence briefings in mid-September, the simple truth of it is that no experience that Romney or Ryan has had so far–government or otherwise–has given them the power to directly affect foreign policy with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ When you’re the president, the buck stops with you. And on foreign policy, the buck has never stopped with Mitt Romney.

But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t in the future. Aaron David Miller points out:

There were no mispronounced names of countries, no fundamental howlers, [Romney] shared the stage with the President of the United States and came off, frankly, fairly passive, but I think that was part of the strategy. His game was to create the image that putting the country in Mitt Romney’s hands meant putting the country in centrist, moderate, safe hands. Not the muscular, reckless, ideological force with which the GOP has been identified and which some of Romney’s own comments has made him an ally of. On politics, I think he actually did O.K.


The success that Mitt Romney did have on Monday night was that he managed to shake the war-hawkish shadow of his Republican predecessor. And by agreeing with President Obama, he shielded himself from criticisms that he would have a similar foreign policy plan to George W. Bush if elected. Sure, he got a little mixed up with Syria and Iran geography, but both candidates came away with the result they wanted.

The Obama camp was going for the win, and they got it. But that doesn’t mean that Mitt Romney didn’t win something, too. He came off “conversant” on the issues, as former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell pointed out on NOW with Alex Wagner on Tuesday afternoon. Whether the voters will see it that way, we’ll know on November 6th. Then again, it’s often said that Americans don’t vote based on foreign policy, so maybe this debate doesn’t matter much at all. I almost wish I’d known that in advance so I could have watched the Bears game.

Can both candidates win the debate?

Updated