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President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney met in Boca Raton, Fla., last night for their third and final debate. In the 90-minute program moderated by Bob Scheiffer, the president and his challenger sought to highlight their differences related to the U.S. role in the world, including America’s military budget, U.S.-China relations and the ongoing unrest in the Arab world. But both candidates also sought to lead the discussion to the economy and jobs, issues believed to be the central drivers of the upcoming election. Please join us to talk about what we heard from candidates last night and where the campaigns go from here.
- E.J. Dionne Jr. senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, columnist for The Washington Post and author of "Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent."
- Ramesh Ponnuru senior editor for the "National Review."
- Mark Landler White House correspondent for The New York Times.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Last night in Boca Raton, Fla., President Obama and former Gov. Romney debated foreign policy issues and America's role in the world. Joining me to talk about last night's debate, where the race goes from here: E.J. Dionne at the Brookings Institution, Mark Landler of The New York Times, and Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review.
MS. DIANE REHMThroughout the hour, we do invite your comments, your participation. Give us your reactions. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning, everybody. Thanks for being here.
MR. E.J. DIONNE JR.Good morning, Diane.
MR. RAMESH PONNURUGood morning.
MR. MARK LANDLERGood morning, Diane.
REHME.J. Dionne, there seemed to be lots of agreement last night.
JR.Of a sort, indeed. You know, if I could -- we could -- if I could do the punditry in the substance, I think this was the first debate in reverse that Romney was playing not to lose. President Obama was playing to win. And I think the consensus is that he won. The instant polls suggested that Romney wanted to do a couple of things. He basically didn't seem to want to disturb a race that he's decided is moving his way. And he spent all this time reassuring people that he's not going to start a new war.
JR.You know, I cast my first vote for George McGovern who died this week. I'd like to think that Romney's peacenik debate was a tribute to George McGovern. I don't think that's what it was. But I think that was his strategy, and he pursued it.
JR.And I don't think he won. On the substance, I think it should be disturbing not only to people that would disagree with Romney but to those who thought they agreed with him, that he was willing to abandon so many of the positions he had taken earlier. His entire critique of Obama up to this point had been from the hawkish side of Obama. And last night, you know, if you did a word count, the words I agree with the president or variations thereof were spoken an awful lot of times by Mr. Romney.
PONNURUI think the debate was a defeat for the neo-conservative right and the anti-war left. You have a president who's bragging about his drone strikes and a challenger who is, as E.J. said, repeatedly trying to get to his left. In fact, there were points on that debate where you wouldn't have been able to tell just from listening who was the incumbent Democrat and who was the challenger Republican because there was such a complete role reversal.
PONNURUAnd it's not just, I think, that Romney wanted to reassure people that he's not a warmonger. He also, I think, had a very clear strategy of not wanting to appear petty and wanted to appear, as much as possible, presidential, and therefore not allowing the president to get to him and get him to descend to a kind of tit for tat exchange.
REHMBut he did. That is, Gov. Romney brought up the president's so-called apology tour. What did you make of that?
PONNURUWell, I think that is something that the Democrats and Obama -- I think you could tell -- personally find very offensive. They think it's a made-up charge. And they -- and he -- and Obama responded, I think, in a kind of irritable way and then didn't get the last word in when Romney was quoting him. And I think that, just watching it, you're going to have to say Romney won that exchange. I don't think he won a lot of exchanges last night, but I do think he won that one.
REHMMark Landler, as our neutral body here this morning, how did you see last night's debate, not so much in the winning or the losing but the overall impression that each of the two men gave to the audience in that studio and to the nation?
LANDLERWell, I think as someone who covers President Obama, I think that, just as E.J. said, this may have reflected Romney liking where this race is going and not wanting to upset that. I think it reflected President Obama sensing that perhaps the race is going in the wrong direction and having to act aggressively to halt the Romney momentum.
LANDLERI mean, you saw the president try to draw blood almost on the first question and then repeatedly go after Romney with, you know, saying things as, as a commander-in-chief, I've had to do things that you clearly haven't had to do, trying to tie him very directly to the Bush administration, his reference to Dick Cheney as Romney, calling Dick Cheney a wise counselor and his, you know, repeated comebacks when he was challenged on things like Israel.
LANDLERHe got one of his better lines of the night off when Romney said, you didn't visit Israel in your first term. And he said, yes, but when I visited as a candidate, I didn't go to attend fundraisers. So I think this was Obama, as he was very much in the second debate, recognizing that he's in a bit of a perilous moment here in the campaign, and he needed to strike back and strike back hard.
REHMWhat about the president's statements after Gov. Romney said, you didn't go to Israel, E.J.?
JR.Well, I agree with Mark, that that was a very powerful moment in the debate because, as Mark said, the president said he didn't go to a fundraiser. He also spoke very movingly about going to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, and it just sounded very serious. Obviously, anyone who cares about Israel, including but not limited to Jewish voters sort of, I think, found that a very appealing moment.
JR.The one dissent I have, by the way, is -- and maybe -- Mark may be absolutely right that the Obama campaign worries that the campaign is getting away from them. At least my reading of the polls in the last several days is that Romney definitely had momentum off that first debate. It's not clear to me that it's continuing and that Obama seems to be hanging on to leads in, you know, like four states, including Ohio, that would be enough to give him the victory.
JR.I just think he sensed that if he didn't go on offense, he might lose -- you know, he might take a race that's at a tipping point and tip at the wrong way. That's just my view...
REHMAnd before we get too far into the polls, Ramesh, how did you react to the Israel exchange?
PONNURUYou know, well, I thought that the question of who visited how many times and when was one of the more trivial exercises in a debate that was not notably heavy on substance to begin with. I thought that -- my overwhelming impression was, wow, these guys do seem to think that there are pro-Israel votes in play, and, you know, many times when people -- you know, whenever they talked about Israel, I mentally thought Florida. And whenever they talked about China, I thought Ohio.
REHMAll right. And...
JR.That was not cynical of you, Ramesh. That was exactly right.
REHMOK. Ramesh, overall, what messages do you think voters took away from last night's debate?
PONNURUWell, I think that the message that they had to take away from Obama was he's about nation building here at home, because he said that about four or five different times, and the message that your -- that a voter, I think, would take away from Romney was not really anything he said so much as the overall tone, which was calm, cool, collected, which is clearly what he wanted to come up with every single response that he had.
JR.I think Romney was reacting, in part, to the performance in the last debate where he was way too hot, where he went after -- showed some disrespect both to the president and to Candy Crowley, the moderator. And he was determined not to do that. I think that a lot will depend on the next couple of days because, again, I still found it breathtaking that Romney was willing to take such a different set of positions.
JR.And there have been some many good pieces, including in Mark's paper, about -- one by David Sanger, about the oddness of the Romney foreign policy team where you have a lot of neocons very prominently there but also quite a few important realists, notably Bob Zoellick. And you wonder, where is this guy on foreign policy? And I think he's not going to make that clear to us until after the election and maybe months after that.
REHMDo you wonder the same thing, Mark Landler?
LANDLERWell, absolutely because you saw, just over the primaries, a sort of Romney continuing to try to out-hawk himself, and then the rise to the fore of people like Dan Senor, who seemed to become an exceptionally influential foreign policy advisor, particularly in the late stages. So it did seem that that was -- that faction of his brain trust was carrying the day. But then yesterday, it was a very different message. Whether that means that people like Bob Zoellick or Steve Hadley are getting their voices through, I'm not clear. But it does seem to be in some kind of an internal debate within the campaign.
REHMIran certainly came into the debate last night, Mark Landler. You've got some slightly new and developing information on that.
LANDLERWell, yeah. My colleague Helene Cooper and I reported last Sunday that the U.S. and Iran had agreed in principle to whole direct bilateral talks after the election. The White House denied that report, as did the Iranians, and President Obama denied it again last night in the debate. What was interesting about it was, about five minutes later, he circled back to the issue of Iran and congratulated Mitt Romney for "endorsing our policy of applying diplomatic pressure and potentially having bilateral discussions with the Iranians to end their nuclear program."
LANDLERSo there was a sort of an odd disconnect here. I'm not sure exactly what he was denying since it's clear that this is an administration policy and, by the way, a policy that everyone who's serious about Iran believes is the necessary and inevitable next step before we really do have to resort to force or a military option.
REHMThe president called Gov. Romney on the fact that early in the campaign, the governor had said that Russia was our biggest threat and then sort of pushed him into a time cast. Ramesh.
PONNURUThat's right. He referred to Romney's comment that Russia was our number one geopolitical foe, and, for some reason, Romney seems to have some sort of private definition of the word geopolitical that rescues that statement. I can't fathom what it is, but it set up one of Obama's clearly canned lines, which was that Romney wanted to return to the foreign policy of the 1980s, the social values of the 1950s and the economics of the 1920s, which, I think, was a pretty good line but came off as a little bit canned.
REHMRamesh Ponnuru, he is senior editor for the National Review. Short break here. When we come back, I'd like to hear from you, your thoughts about last night's debate.
REHMAnd welcome back. Three people are here in the studio with me: Mark Landler of The New York Times, Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review, and E.J. Dionne of the Brookings Institution and The Washington Post. E.J., you wanted to follow up with a question to Mark on Iran and Israel.
JR.Right. Well, something seemed to happen after your story appeared, or actually in the story itself, that may have changed what the administration was saying about that story. Could you tell us a little about that?
LANDLERYeah. We had a sort of an unusual situation, just as we were closing that story, when we went to speak to the Israelis about what they would feel about this kind of a diplomatic initiative. And we initially got a sort of a guardedly positive reaction. You know, they'd be willing to try this out subject to the caveats the Israelis always had about Iran. They have to suspend enrichment of uranium. They have to ship out their stockpiles of enriched uranium, and they have to forfeit their nuclear weapons program.
LANDLERBut then shortly before our deadline, literally moments before this story went up on the Web, there was a follow-on conversation with the Israelis, where they said, actually, no. We now want to give you a different statement. And that statement was, we don't believe Iran should be rewarded with direct talks. We think that all pressure should be brought to bear on Iran. I think that is a statement that caught a lot of people off guard.
LANDLERAnd it may have had something to do with the way the White House reacted because here we are two weeks before an election, President Obama facing an opponent who has consistently made an issue of showing daylight between the United States and our closest ally in the Middle East. This would've been another moment where the United States would've appeared to be at odds with the Israelis. And I just wonder politically whether that was a factor in all of this.
REHMAll right. And here's an email following up on that from Kathleen in Sterling, Va., who says, "What reason, other than going to war against Iran, could Mitt Romney have for wanting to give the Pentagon an extra $2 trillion a year, which the Defense Department is not even asking for? This and his wanting to give additional huge tax perks to the very rich are the only two items that he has been consistent on for the past nine months." Ramesh.
PONNURUWell, it's -- Romney's not for giving the Pentagon an extra $2 trillion a year. That's the total increase in spending that he's contemplating from today's budget to the budgets over the next 10 years.
REHMAnd the question is, why?
PONNURURight. Why. Well, I mean, the -- Romney's view and the view of some of his advisers is that you need to have the capacity to win two wars at a time. Romney has argued for that. I think on the theory that if you're engaged in some kind of military conflict, you don't want some -- another rogue state to have an incentive to start making trouble because you have that capacity.
PONNURUBut, of course, this is something that is now splitting Republicans in a way it didn't use to, that there really is a kind of budget hawk wing of the Republican Party that is willing to look at the defense budget. And Rand Paul, the senator from Kentucky, has emerged as the real spokesman for it.
LANDLERI guess the other point I'd make just on this whole budget issue is there was a little bit of sort of very Washington-centric news in this debate when the president came out and vowed the sequestration will not pass. He also sort of handed the entire concept of the sequestration off to Congress as though he almost had nothing to do with it, which isn't quite the case. But for people here who are watching the fiscal cliff negotiations as the next drama after the election, that was a very interesting for the president to say.
REHMAnd how could he have said that, E.J.?
JR.Well, because I think the president is going to come out -- if he's reelected, is going to come out after the election with a proposal of his own that includes the tax increases on the rich, a series of cuts that he approves of. And he's going to put out a budget. And so he's going to say, we don't -- we want to avoid the sequestration 'cause liberals, by the way, don't like all the cuts on the other side of that. This is balanced pain to each side.
JR.And so I think that's what that was about it. It struck me that Mitt Romney has made a decision not to explain between now and the election how he can cut taxes by $5 trillion and add $2 trillion over a decade to the Pentagon and still make it work. He -- but...
REHMHow can he do that, Ramesh?
PONNURUWell, you know, we have to keep in mind that the $2 trillion is not all an addition to what Obama is planning. It's an addition to what we have, and it's -- you know, some of that increase is already built in to our budget projections. But I think it's interesting -- E.J. is certainly not the first person to wonder -- whether these promises that Romney is making are going to add up.
PONNURUAnd I myself think that Romney's plan for 20 percent across-the-board cut in all tax rates is just not going to end up being enacted because it's going to be so hard to make the math work, either, you know, sort of budget math or even political math. But keep in mind that E.J. just said essentially that the president has a secret plan to end the sequester, so...
PONNURUAnd we both have -- I wonder whether that comment is going to blunt the Obama campaign's efforts to say everything Romney's talking about is some sort of plan they're just going to spring on us after the election.
JR.Now, first of all, I didn't say Obama has a secret plan to end the sequester. Obama put out a detailed budget which, when you add up the numbers to the cuts already there, would, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, produce $3.8 trillion in cuts over a decade, which is roughly what we need to reach reasonable balance. So that I think there is a whole lot more transparency on the Obama side.
JR.Now, you could argue he's the incumbent president. He's had to up budgets. Nonetheless, there's a whole lot more clarity. And I am struck that the Obama campaign has finally put out an ad and a little booklet on the Obama plan. I wrote a column earlier this week saying, you know, if you had listen to Obama, there is a plan there for his second term. They just hadn't packaged it in any way or emphasized it in any way. And I am glad they finally did.
REHMAll right. I'm going to open the phones now. We'll hear from our listeners directly. First, to Boston, Mass. Hi there, Doug. You're on the air.
DOUGHi, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
DOUGFor the whole panel, polling shows that Obama has a bit of an edge on foreign policy, Benghazi sort of excepted. And do you think by lining up with the president in the debate, Mitt Romney was trying to neutralize foreign policy as an issue so that he could keep focused on the differences between fiscal policy and the economy, which is more fertile ground for him?
JR.Yes. I think that's completely right.
REHMHow would you answer it, Ramesh?
PONNURUWell, I guess, we're all going to agree here just like they did last night.
REHMAnd, Mark Landler?
LANDLERAbsolutely. I mean, foreign policy debate to me was really a debate about who shows leadership broadly defined. And I think that was what Romney was trying to do much more than, do you want to arm the rebels in Syria? I mean -- or another one of an issue like that. I mean, the fact that he brought up Mali and drone strikes over -- or potentially and counterterrorism issues in Mali just shows how esoteric some of these issues are for the average voters. So I think it was much more about leadership.
REHMWhy did he bring up Mali, Ramesh?
PONNURUYou know, there were many times during that debate where I thought that Romney was just trying to show off how well-briefed he had been in order to create the impression that he's ready to be commander in chief, that he knows something about foreign policy while at the same time, again, trying to avoid anything that made him look as though he had a kind of difference with Obama on foreign policy that should worry anybody.
JR.Totally agree with that. I want to make another point, which really struck me last night. Republicans, Romney campaign, in particular, have loved to analogize this election to 1980. And the idea is that the country was very dissatisfied with Jimmy Carter. All Ronald Reagan had to prove at the end was that he was acceptable and that he'd win the election. I think last night, in a way, put the wide a part of that because what we have to remember is in 1980, the country was not only upset by the state of economy. They were very upset with Jimmy Carter's foreign policy.
JR.We had hostages in Iran. And there is one-half of that Reagan formula totally missing after last night because one thing that Romney's hugging of Obama did was it essentially said, hey, Obama's not doing such a bad job on foreign policy. And I think that is a subliminal message that was almost not subliminal. And so I think that sort of takes away from some of the armament as it were in the Romney campaign.
LANDLEREveryone always remembers that famous question that Reagan posed in the debate with Carter as, are you better off than you were four years ago in an economic sense? But, in fact, that question had four parts. One was about consumer prices. One was about unemployment. The last two were about America's standing in the world and does the -- does America feel safe or less safe? So, really, that question was about foreign policy, to some extent, as well as economic and domestic issues.
PONNURUWell, toward the end of the debate, Romney did talk -- he did have this whole litany of how, you know, al-Qaida is not on the run, our standing in the world has declined, as it were. And if you put that together with all of the lack of policy disagreements that we had in the debate, I think the message that Romney was trying to get across was something like I'm going to implement Obama's foreign policies better, more effectively.
PONNURUAnd that created an opening for Obama to say -- I think one of his best lines of the night last night was that what Romney is doing is saying he's going to implement my policies, but he's going to talk louder about them.
REHMRamesh, let me ask you that question that Gov. Romney seemed to dwell on. Has the U.S. lost standing in the world? Is that an obvious and definite point that conservatives make and believe?
PONNURUWell, I do think that some of our alliances have experienced a significant amount of tension over the last few years, and I also think that there has been a kind of relative decline of the United States that is probably connected less to the particulars of this administration's foreign policy than to inexorable economic trends. You know, poor countries are getting richer, and that is going to affect the balance of power in the world. There's nothing, I think, that this administration could have done to keep China from rising in the long term as a percentage of global GDP.
REHMAnd, of course, China was an issue again last night, Mark.
LANDLERIt was, but I guess I'd make an observation, picking up on what Ramesh just said. If you believe that to some extent the greatest long-term challenge for the United States is not the Middle East, but Asia, China and the growing economic might of that part of the world, it was kind of a pretty sterile debate. First of all, they barely talked about Asia at all outside of China, and, to the extent they talked about China, it was for voters in Ohio.
LANDLERThey didn't really talk about strategic issues. You know, they didn't talk about issues like force projection. President Obama has promoted this pivot to Asia as one of the great geopolitical initiatives of his first term, and he barely mentioned it last night. So I think that was sort of telling and maybe a bit disappointing.
JR.See, I think they didn't talk much about Asia because for some years now, going back into the George W. Bush administration, there really hasn't been a fundamental disagreement with the parties over Asia. I know quite a number of Democrats during Bush's -- especially the second half of Bush, who quietly said, hey, his Asian policy is actually not that bad. Maybe it's 'cause he's not paying much attention to it, they'd add if they wanted to be snarky about it.
JR.But I just -- I want to just take issue with Ramesh on one thing, which is I don't think we've lost standing since 2008. I think there are -- by many measures, our standing is better, and we could have a long conversation in another show about this. I don't think the rise of new powers, the economic rise of China or India, necessarily has to be threatening to us. I think America can remain an exceedingly -- a central player in the world in a new configuration of power. We've lived with other powers before and done just fine.
REHME.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have heard from Brian from Birmingham, Ala. He wonders what effect Romney's attempt to present himself as a peaceful president will have on his own party, which is so traditionally militarily focused, Ramesh.
PONNURUWell, as I mentioned earlier in the show, there's now a real divide on the Republican side, not entirely openly discussed, but real nonetheless. And I think that his reluctance to run on a kind of hawkish neoconservative platform at the moment when most -- the most people were going to be paying attention to his foreign policy is going to be cited by the sort of relatively dovish faction here.
PONNURUAnd the other thing that I think really comes out from this debate, both candidates were so eager to move to domestic policy and domestic politics at every opportunity. We heard more about teachers than we did about Africa and Latin America combined in last night's debate. And I think that has something to do with the American public that is domestically focused and is also war-weary.
JR.Somebody tweeted last night that if we're invaded by teachers in the next year, this debate will prove prophetic. I wish I could credit the person. I forgot...
LANDLERI also had a moment of -- a twinge of sympathy for Bob Schieffer when he said, I think we can all agree teachers are important. And, you know, here's a guy...
JR.We love them.
LANDLER...who prepared all these questions on foreign policy and was suddenly hearing about the high school scores of Massachusetts seniors.
REHMPrecisely. To San Antonio, Texas. Claudia, good morning.
CLAUDIAYes. Hi. Good morning. Thanks for taking my call.
CLAUDIAI just wanted to real quickly throw out the term of false equality. I think that the media, in general, has given Mitt Romney a little too much credit, especially in this debate, for coming in and having a goal of just appearing presidential, like, not messing up. I think that's a really low bar, and I think the truth is -- and I think a lot of independent voters would agree -- that he seemed rattled.
CLAUDIAI don't think that he purposely went off the attack. I think he was a bit embarrassed, and I think at times it appeared that he was listening to Barack Obama in terms of learning about foreign policy. And I think he -- well, there will be some results showing that he was suffering from looking as a commander in chief, but I think he looked like he was out of his league a little bit.
JR.I agree with the caller, broadly speaking. I'm not sure the media has given Romney as much of a break as she's suggested on the whole. But I -- if she wants to look at a blog I wrote last night, I agree on two points. One is -- on the one hand, I do think Romney went in with the strategy not to shake things up, but I also agree that at moments, that did make him look somewhat shaky.
JR.And I thought for a challenger to keep saying I agree with the president just doesn't convey a whole lot of strength or independence. And so, in some meta way, I'm -- I don't -- I agree with the caller. I don't think that message particularly worked, but we'll find out in two weeks.
PONNURUYeah. I just had a completely different reaction. I thought Romney looked unflappable. He just politely kept looking at the president as opposed to giving his opponent a death stare, which is what Obama frequently did during the debate. I thought Obama frequently looked petty and aggressive, and Romney kept trying to rise above, just -- you know, his response to a lot of criticism several times was, look, attacking me is not an agenda for this country. And I thought that was a pretty effective line.
LANDLERWell, I mean, I guess I'm trying to approach this a bit more neutrally. I do think that Ramesh raises one point that I wondered about just as a viewer, which is when Obama responded to Romney on the U.S. Navy with likening it to a game of battleship, I wondered whether that was edging too far into snark.
REHMMark Landler of The New York Times. We'll take a short break here. When we come back, more of your calls, your email. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMWelcome back. We'll go right to the phones to Toby in Oklahoma City. Hi there.
TOBYHello. Thank you for...
REHMYou're on the air, sir.
TOBYThank you for taking my call.
TOBYI was only disappointed, I think, or maybe disappointed in I think one thing last night is that they didn't talk about Palestinian issues with as much talk about Israel, radical (word?). Matter of fact, it was never brought as a question or addressed.
LANDLERWell, it was very telling, and it also tells you a lot about where each of them are on the issue of a peace deal. You know, Romney, in that famous video, the 47 percent video, at another point in that addressed to fundraisers, he made the point that the Israel-Palestinian issue is something that's probably just going to have to be "kicked down the road," and we hope it will solve itself later on, for which he was criticized.
LANDLERBut to be truthful, that's roughly what the president has done for the last two years. After he tried in his first couple of years to get a process going, arguably messing it up by focusing too much on Israeli settlements, he allowed his special envoy to leave and didn't replace them with anyone of equal stature. And he himself has really been utterly disengaged from this process, frankly, so is the secretary of state for the last year and a half. So kicking the can down the road is a -- as a bipartisan approach to this issue right now.
REHMInteresting that it did not come up, which raised for me the question of whether questions are approved by the candidates. Does the debate commission allow the candidates to see and approve those questions?
LANDLERAs far as I know, no. And I think it's very possible that it was on Bob Schieffer's list and that Bob Schieffer could never get to it because we took all those detours to talking about teachers and the economy and the budget and all sorts of other things. It's true the word Palestinian, as far as I can tell, was not mentioned once. And Ramesh and I were talking about this at the break. I think this has a lot more to do with American political geography than Middle Eastern political geography.
LANDLERFlorida, with a large Jewish population, is in play. Michigan, with a large Arab and Muslim population, is not in play. And I'm afraid that just may explain a lot of what the candidates themselves chose to do and not to do last night.
REHMChristine in Dallas, Texas, writes -- she wishes that Obama had reacted to this point made by Gov. Romney explaining that his economic plan would take eight to 10 years to show any progress. Christine says, "I wish Obama would've commented on why then it's expected his plan should take less than four years to show progress." Ramesh.
PONNURUWell, you know, I think that's a perfectly reasonable point. Although it's one of the things that Obama set himself up for by saying early on that if he doesn't fix the economy in three years, this is going to be a one-term proposition.
LANDLERRamesh is absolutely right. This was mishandled in a communications way, and the president has himself somewhat to blame for it. It's as though everyone should've read the Ken Rogoff-Carmen Reinhart book about how financial crises take a minimum of eight to 10 years and just taken that on board. From the very beginning, they didn't want to do that. They were obviously hoping for a better outcome. I guess that's natural when you're the ones in office.
JR.And I think at that point there was, for a brief period, a semi-consensus. I agree totally they were too optimistic at the beginning. And even if -- it has nothing to do with the economics. It has to do with politics. Tell people how bad things could get to show that, in fact, you avoided a lot of problems. But I do think on this point about are things getting better, partly because of the economic news, at least until this point.
JR.The Obama campaign has switched over to saying, yes, things are substantially better. Look at the number of jobs created. We have pulled ourselves out of the tail spin. We're moving forward. We just need to move a little faster.
REHMAll right. To Dallas, Texas. Good morning, Curtis. You're on the air.
CURTISGood morning, Diane. Longtime listener...
REHMCurtis, are you there? Go right ahead.
CURTISYes, I'm here. Yes, do you get me?
REHMGo right ahead, sir.
CURTISOK, thank you. I just wanted to say I'm a longtime listener, and I've always loved your show.
CURTISI just wanted to comment. I've heard this so much, and it's so tiring that whenever Romney wants to say, you know, attacking me personally is not your agenda and yet on the other side is Obama, you know, being attacked by him, and that's OK. You know, that -- was that his agenda, was just to attack, attack, attack?
JR.I guess this is a common view on our side of politics, if I may identify with the caller. I was really struck that in the first debate, when Mitt Romney was on the attack, that showed he was strong in the eyes of conservatives, and when Joe Biden was on the attack in the second debate, that was somehow a terrible thing to do. So yes, it is a double standard. Unfortunately, these double standards keep repeating themselves.
REHMAnd, Mark Landler, how did the candidates differ with respect to what role the U.S. should play regarding Syria?
LANDLERWell, again, this was a case where the, you know, the common ground was more noticeable than the differences. I mean, what Mitt Romney has said is -- and this is the significant difference -- we should arm the rebels. And the president has said he doesn't want to do that because there's too high a risk that the weapons will end up in the wrong hands. Well, last night, Gov. Romney acknowledged that was an issue and said that they'd have to work hard to prevent that from happening.
LANDLERAnd then he came out, I think, twice and saying, we're not -- I do not want to commit ground troops to this conflict. I don't want to impose a no-fly zone over Syria. So, I mean, in a way, that same caution and reluctance that President Obama has shown about being drawn into Syria, the governor absolutely echoes that. And even on this issue of arming the rebels, the governor and the president both share the concern about arms flowing into the wrong hands.
PONNURUI think that's right. I think this was yet another place where the differences between the candidates became very muted as the conversation went on.
JR.In one of his movies, Woody Allen had people speaking English with English subtitles. What are they saying and what do they really mean? And I saw the subtitle as Romney was talking about Syria, I am not George W. Bush, don't worry about me. And that's what that was about. But I also think it's a genuinely difficult problem. You know, for once we acknowledged in a debate that this is a genuinely difficult problem.
JR.There are two plausible views here. One is we need to intervene more to get the weapons into the right hands so bad guys don't win in Syria, people hostile to our interest or dangerous to the world. The other side is if we intervene too far, we may ourselves get enmeshed in some trouble and arm the wrong people. And this is a very hard debate.
REHMRamesh, were you at all surprised or disappointed that the attack on the embassy, the consulate in Benghazi did not come up last night?
PONNURUWell, I think a lot of people expected it to come up that Republicans in particular thought that Romney had mishandled that question last time and that he would have his chance to bring it up again, and then he had an opportunity, didn't do it. But I think that what...
REHMHow do you think that was?
PONNURUI think because the overall strategy of the campaign of Romney last night was not to get into battles with the president over foreign policy for a lot of the reasons that we've discussed.
REHMBut they've been battling over this for a week now, Mark.
LANDLERI guess my sense was that the more this story gets picked over, the more murky and strange and contradictory it becomes. And I wondered whether Gov. Romney saw himself once again standing on a stage having this kind of semantic argument and then having President Obama say to him at some point, you know, as the man who sends people into battle and greets the caskets when they come home to Dover Air Base, you know, I am more concerned about this than anyone.
LANDLERI have more invested than this anyone. And maybe that's just the kind of commander-in-chief moment that Romney didn't feel like he wanted to give the president. He had it once before.
JR.I agree with that. And Romney swung and missed twice on this issue. And I didn't think he wanted to swing again and risk striking out.
REHMGive me the quote where you say he swung twice.
JR.Swung and missed. Well, his initial response where he looked totally opportunistic in attacking Obama and then in the last debate when he said, well, President Obama didn't even declare this terrorist event in the, you know, in the Rose Garden. And then, you know, Candy Crowley had to correct him. And, in fact, Obama had used those words. And so those were two real problems for him. And I think he decided this isn't worth getting lost on again.
PONNURUEspecially since the coverage of the Libya story has been harmful enough to President Obama both before the second debate and after the second debate. There wasn't -- there's not as much reason for Romney to engage on that issue.
REHMAll right. To Jeffersonville, Ind. Good morning, Kelly.
KELLYYes. I thought President Obama dominated the debate and completely knocked Romney right out of the ring. At some point during the debate, it looked like Romney might have been channeling Richard Nixon from his debate with Kennedy. He looked nervous and sweaty and in a state of panic.
REHMAnybody agree with that?
JR.Well, I do think Obama dominated the debate. I was struck. There are two streams of analysis or spin after the debate. But generally, the pro-Obama view was Romney killed him -- I mean, Obama just destroyed Romney. There was the sweat. People called to attention the way he looked. And on the conservative side, they basically said, as Ramesh has said today, he looked statesman-like and reasonable. I count the ballots there and suggesting that the conservatives realized that it was a good night for Obama.
JR.But they disagree with -- I do think there is some substance in their disagreement saying, well, they think Romney did what he had to do. We'll see in a couple of weeks.
REHMAll right. To Charlotte, N.C. Good morning, Dina.
DINAGood morning, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.
DINAI just wanted to say that, after I listened to the debate on NPR last night, I felt that Mitt Romney came off with a very strong racial bias. He said that he wanted to civilize Pakistan and that -- he vilified the Chinese by saying that they were hacking our emails and undermining our economic policies and -- what is it -- stealing our patents. And every time he spoke, it seems that he was just aggressive towards people of color.
PONNURUWell, the view that the Chinese government does not enforce Americans intellectual property rights is, I think, widely shared in both parties. It's shared by the Obama administration. And the view that Pakistan -- Pakistani norms are not particularly advanced or compatible with a peaceful world, I think, is also widely shared by, you know, I think that's not a racist sentiment. That's a reality-based sentiment.
LANDLERI wouldn't impute a racial element to this, but there is -- this question gets at something in the Middle East that is a difference between the two of them, which is that Romney still advocates for really projecting American values. The right outcome in Egypt is for them to become more like us. And President Obama was clear in saying the right outcome is the outcome they choose.
LANDLERAnd if that ends up being the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi, that is the reality we have to deal with. I do think that's an important distinction. I don't believe it's based in a view of, you know, the white man's burden or something like that.
REHMMark Landler of The New York Times and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." What about the killing of Osama bin Laden, Ramesh? How did the two sort of tussle on that one?
PONNURUI thought Romney made a very interesting choice to bring that up first and applaud the president for it, in a way that I think made it harder for the president himself to bring it up as an accomplishment. And I thought that was actually a pretty deft move on Romney's part. The other thing, though -- I mean, I suppose we haven't mentioned one of these lines where Romney really seems kind of a little bit left of the president, which is when he said, we can't kill our way out of this problem, which really was a sort of McGovernite moment, as E.J. was mentioning.
PONNURUBut I do wish we'd gotten into a little bit more substantive debate about our reliance on drone strikes as a method of winning the war on terrorism. I think there's some interesting common ground actually to be found on the left and the right but not anything that was explored last night.
JR.I agree with that, and I wish President Obama had been asked to defend the drone policy. Romney was asked. He agreed with the president. And the issue got dropped because there are -- this is one issue that criss-crosses a lot of the normal political lines. Just to go back to the Obama -- the Osama bin Laden question -- by the way, there was that moment when Bob Schieffer went viral when he referred to Obama bin Laden.
JR.But I thought that, actually, that was one of Obama's best exchanges because he didn't have to bring up Osama bin Laden himself, which was good for the president. And, secondly, he went back at Romney and noted that, once upon a time, Romney had said we shouldn't move Heaven and Earth to get one man. Suggesting that Romney had not always taken this view that Obama did. And it underscored that this was a gutsy decision by the president to do this.
JR.It wasn't the obvious choice to do. He carried a lot of risks for himself if he did fail. So I thought, actually, Romney would have been better off not bringing that up at all.
REHMRamesh, do you agree?
PONNURUI think that it's absolutely right that, had this mission failed, it would have been very bad for President Obama. And so he does deserve credit, I think, for making that call.
REHMDo you think that what Gov. Romney said earlier and what Gov. Romney said last night are somewhat at odds with each other?
PONNURUWell, yes, I do. I mean, you know, he can defend his initial statement on the ground that he was saying this doesn't solve everything. We still got this threat. There will always be other terrorists that we have to deal with. And I never said you shouldn't try to get them. But I think, tonally, there's just the distinction because he was downplaying the importance of doing this.
LANDLERYou know, one area where I think the Benghazi -- the attack plays into the bin Laden issue is -- bin Laden was part of a larger -- and there is part of a larger narrative for the president, which is that he's decimated the leadership of al-Qaida. And so the evidence that there are these al-Qaida spin-offs that are active in attacking Americans in various places undercuts a little bit the bin Laden triumph. And I think Gov. Romney tried to get at that by saying, you know, you keep saying al-Qaida is on the run or al-Qaidas, we vanquished them.
LANDLERWell, we haven't vanquished them. And I think that is one area where even without getting into the debate about who said what about Benghazi, just the reality of four weeks of coverage of Benghazi has deprived the president of a little bit of the sheen of bin Laden. I don't over-dramatize this point. But just to some extent, he can't say that not only do we get bin Laden, but we really killed the entire high command. It's a little bit of tougher argument to make now.
JR.I don't see any way that the bin Laden killing loses a kind of luster. I hate to say that by killing anybody, even Osama bin Laden, but it was, you know, a great triumph for the United States 'cause Osama bin Laden was the guy behind 9/11. So I think nothing takes away from that. I agree, obviously, that what happened in Libya was a great tragedy and that it did disturbed a narrative that Obama had a very strong case to make that, in fact, they have been very effective in going after al-Qaida. But they are still there, or still terrorists are still there. It's a long fight.
REHME.J. Dionne of The Brookings Institution, columnist for The Washington Post, author of "Our Divided Political Heart," Ramesh Ponnuru, he's senior editor for the National Review, and Mark Landler of The New York Times, thank you, all.
LANDLERThank you, Diane.
REHMI will be away tomorrow, going up to see the folks at WRVO in Syracuse. I'll be back with you on Thursday. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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