In the first presidential debate in Denver, Republican nominee Mitt Romney, trailing badly in the polls, reversed some longstanding positions on critical economic policies.
He said that of course he wouldn’t cut taxes on wealthy people if it added to the deficit. President Obama, who barely showed up for that debate, stood slack-jawed in astonishment as Romney threw his own supply-side advisers under the bus.
Monday night was the neocons’ turn.
Reasonable Romney, or Moderate Mitt, as Bill Clinton called him, pulled another Etch a Sketch, this time on national security.
Astonishingly he said little about Libya, which has been burning up Fox News for weeks. He accepted the president’s timetable for the 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan and praised the recent troop surge. He said he didn’t want our military involved in Syria. He agreed with the president that Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak had to go.
He even declined an opportunity offered by moderator Bob Schieffer to “declare that an attack on Israel is an attack on the United States,” and pretty much echoed the president’s statement that “if Israel is attacked, America will stand with Israel.”
And astonishingly, on Iran, here’s what he said:
It is also essential for us…to dissuade Iran from having a nuclear weapon through peaceful and diplomatic means. And crippling sanctions…do work. You’re seeing it right now in the economy…I would have put them in place earlier. But it’s good that we have them. [Italics added.]
…And of course, a military action is the last resort. It is something one would only…consider if all of the other avenues had been…tried to their full extent.
Romney has spent the whole campaign highlighting his differences with President Obama over Iran and Israel. He’s claimed he would be more forceful and effective in preventing Iran from getting nuclear capability, hinting he would support and even join an Israeli preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
This has been the red meat he threw to unreconstructed warhawks like former UN Ambassador John Bolton and neoconservative advisers like Dan Senor who learned nothing from the catastrophic Iraq war and apparently wouldn’t be too upset starting another, even bigger one.
But now, with two weeks before the election, Romney is ahead in many polls. His big stumbling block is women voters, who still give the president a nice edge. On CNN’s coverage of the debate, the yellow line underneath the broadcast showed their reaction. It went very low when either Romney or the president spoke of military action and moved up sharply when either candidate discussed peace and diplomacy.
That’s Romney’s bottom line: soothe women voters on his foreign policy stance, so they’ll vote for him on pocketbook issues. The president was much sharper this time, relentlessly exposing Romney’s contradictions on these issues. He clearly won the debate, though some polls said Romney also looked like a commander in chief.
He needed to accomplish that and persuade voters, particularly women, that he’s not reckless. And if that means the neocons need to walk the plank—at least until the election—then so be it.