When undecided voters in Ohio think of clear and present dangers to the United States, they rarely think of northern Mali.
For good reason.
Many voters could be forgiven for failing to locate Mali on a map of landlocked west African nations.
So it might have come as a surprise to those battleground voters to hear Mitt Romney start the final debate of the 2012 contest by identifying the president’s woeful record in a battleground they had never heard of.
Perhaps the GOP challenger was engaging in an elaborate head fake about Libya. Or perhaps he wanted to show he had memorized a corner of the planet that sounded like he had crammed for the debate.
Either way, Mitt Romney fumbled his way through the verbal test on Commander-in-Chief 101.
Besides West Africa, he had certainly crammed a few talking points about the history of the U.S. Armed Forces. At one point he unearthed an obscurity about how the navy now had less ships than it did in World War One. “Our Navy is old,” he began. “Excuse me, our navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917. The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We’re now at under 285.”
President Obama let the Mali references slide. But the comparisons to a century-old era of naval needs were the debate equivalent of an easy layup.
“You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916,” said the president. “Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting ships. It’s what are our capabilities.”
Normal presidential candidates treat their TV debates like the ultimate interview for the world’s most powerful job. They try to ingratiate themselves with voters like real people try to win over potential employers. They try to sound like they want to get hired.
Not Mitt Romney.
After a lifetime as a CEO, Romney talks as if the hiring decision rests with him. Even as he is trying to get elected, his debates have been marked by an executive attitude: He is the one doing the hiring around here. Often Romney has seemed to treat the president like a candidate for a job where the CEO is the GOP nominee.
In the final debate, Mitt Romney struggled to convince anyone that he could fill the job of commander-in-chief. So he rapidly retreated to the more comfortable corner of the executive suite where you might find a CEO.
After his efforts on Mali floundered, Romney resorted to the kind of business-speak that is his preferred mother tongue. When the president accused him of having “wrong and reckless” policies, Romney said he had a plan to grow the economy through trade.
“Trade grows about 12 percent year,” Romney began, sounding like he was speaking from a PowerPoint presentation. “It doubles about every five or so years. We can do better than that, particularly in Latin America. The opportunities for us in Latin America we have just not taken advantage of fully. As a matter of fact, Latin America's economy is almost as big as the economy of China. We're all focused on China. Latin America is a huge opportunity for us – time zone, language opportunities.”
If Ohio’s voters were venture capital investors, they might have been impressed.
After three debates, Romney's calculation appears to be that the voters won’t bother asking for details. Instead, they will just be impressed by the powerful CEO routine. “You’ll get your chance in a moment,” he told the president in last week’s debate. “I’m still speaking.”
This approach might be useful if you were grilling a possible hire, or perhaps disciplining a wayward middle manager. It is a less familiar approach if you are trying to get hired yourself.
Asserting yourself like a CEO might project strength, but it fails to project likability. Amid all the narrowing in the polls, President Obama continues to hold a strong lead over Governor Romney on the typical test for a presidential candidate: Can you bear to spend time with this person in your living room for the next four years?
Small wonder that Mike Huckabee once suggested that Romney was less like “the guy you work with” and more like “the guy who laid you off.”
In Tuesday’s competition to look and sound like a commander-in-chief, the former businessman struggled to keep up with the former senator who now runs the National Security Council.
It turns out that not all executive jobs are the same.