Presidential debates are a lot like boxing matches: you can lose a round and still win the fight. So far, each candidate has won a round. Whoever comes out on top at Monday night's presidential debate will undoubtedly get a bounce, likely the last one before Election Day two weeks from now. The stakes could not be higher.
While voters will mainly cast their votes based on economic concerns, every American knows that the president’s greatest powers lie in shaping foreign policy. There is a threshold that candidates must meet to give voters confidence that the person running can be trusted to keep our nation safe. Often, the question gets boiled down to the simple test: Can this person serve as the commander-in-chief? It’s something voters decide with their gut. Which is why, particularly on foreign policy, actions will be much more important than rhetoric.
Mark Twain famously asked the question: “How can you tell that a politician is lying?” His mouth is moving.” Voters are deeply suspicious of what they’re told by political candidates, rightfully so. We’ve been duped before. Remember when then-candidate George W. Bush said in a 2000 debate that he was opposed to nation building? Despite his empty claim, Bush went on to make one of the most colossal foreign policy mistakes in our nation’s history. With that in mind, how can we be sure what we’ll get from each candidate? Judge them by their actions.
So we learn something about Mitt Romney when he chooses Dan Senor, one of the neo-con “masterminds” behind President Bush’s catastrophic failure in Iraq, to dictate his Middle East policy. It says something about Romney’s judgment.
As Romney continues his saber rattling, let’s look at his record when it comes to war. While Romney was an outspoken supporter of the Vietnam War, he received four deferments to avoid actually fighting in the war. So while others in his generation were being shot at while trudging through the jungle, Romney ate croissants in French cafes. You might say: “So what? No one wants to go to war.” True. But it says something about a person and their convictions when they vehemently insist that others go to war, while they themselves refuse to fight. In this case, Romney’s actions were not true to his words.
Compare that to President Obama’s record. Like his policies or not, Obama has been true to his word. The president was opposed to the war in Iraq before that was the “cool” position. The grandson of a World War II veteran who served in Patton’s army, the president understands America’s role as the reluctant warrior. So when the Iraq war was raging in 2003 and 2004, he spoke out against the war even when most Democrats would not. As commander-in-chief, he followed through on Iraq and ended the war, even as some generals bellyached about leaving Mosul.
Instead of being bogged down in Iraq, the president rightly brought the focus back to Afghanistan and the hunt to kill Osama bin Laden. The president quadrupled the number of troops in Afghanistan, up from 28,000, where it had stayed for eight years. As he assured American voters in a 2008 debate he would do, President Obama went into Pakistan to take out bin Laden. At the time, Sen. John McCain and others criticized him of that position, which prompted the president to deliver one of my favorite lines of any presidential debate: “John McCain likes to say that he'll follow bin Laden to the gates of Hell, but he won't even follow him to the cave where he lives.” Romney later said it wasn’t “worth moving heaven and earth” to take out the world’s most dangerous terrorist.”
As the failure of the neo-cons becomes more widely accepted, and the strength of President Obama’s judgment becomes clearer, an old political stereotype that has dogged Democrats for decades is being rejected. Traditionally, Republicans are hawks and Democrats are doves. This delineation really took shape during Vietnam, when Republicans successfully defined George McGovern, a highly decorated WWII bomber pilot, as weak. Only recently has a new perception of Democrats emerged. As the quagmire in Iraq dragged on, people realized that tough talk and reckless action were perhaps the greatest threats to our national security. Voters are now much more open to the idea that a Democratic might be better equipped to protect our nation than a Republican.
The president needs to be clear on Afghanistan in tonight’s debate, particularly as we shift from counter-insurgency to counter-terrorism and why all of our combat troops can – and should – be out by 2014. On Syria, the president must be clear that we support the rebels but a direct military intervention would make things worse. Establishing air defenses in populated area—basically bombing to clear no-fly zones—would mean even more civilian casualties. Supplying the rebels with anti-tank weapons and tougher sanctions on Assad’s supporters are essential.
Romney, on the other hand, has a much more fundamental hurdle to navigate. After flubbing his own response to the Benghazi attack, Romney’s credibility is weakened. Additionally, his foreign policy is antiquated to the point of being grossly out of touch. He’s stuck in Rocky IV when he calls Russia our biggest geopolitical threat. His resistance to timelines in Afghanistan, because they embolden the enemy, ignores the biggest lessons learned from Iraq.
Nearly 6 million veterans, more than a quarter of our nation’s veterans, according to Census data, reside in nine critical swing-states: Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Nevada, Virginia, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Florida, and New Hampshire. The veterans in these swing-states and the commander-in –chief test tonight will be major factors in who wins in November.
Monday night, President Obama must drive home the contrast between him and Mitt Romney and continue to redefine strength as it relates to national security. In the nine states that will determine this election, you can’t underestimate the importance of this shift in perception.