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Media Circus: Tone Trumps Content In Final Debate

President Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney walk away after they greet each other at the end of the third presidential debate in Boca Raton, Fla., on Monday.
Saul Loeb
AFP/Getty Images
President Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney walk away after they greet each other at the end of the third presidential debate in Boca Raton, Fla., on Monday.

For most American viewers, including this one, much of Monday night's presidential debate on foreign policy was conducted as though it were in a foreign language.

References to Mali, to former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, missile shields in Poland, "status of forces" agreements — could only have befuddled the voting public.

It's not that the candidates invoked unimportant issues. And it's not that the two held so elevated a conversation mere mortals could not understand. It's that they were debating almost entirely in tone rather than content.

Indeed, listening closely, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney battered President Obama's policies toward Egypt, Syria, Libya and even Iran even as he was substantively expressing agreement.

For his part, Obama appeared intent on reminding voters that Romney hasn't faced the tough global questions. Obama, defending certain defense cuts as smartly reflecting new technical realities: "We also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed." (That got a laugh from the crowd at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., and, naturally, its own Tumblr page within minutes.)

At another point, Obama patronized his opponent: "I know you haven't been in a position to actually execute foreign policy."

Funny, then-Sen. Obama, who had been in Washington less than four years at the time of his election in fall 2008, didn't see such inexperience as a problem back then.

And then after about a half-hour, Romney waded firmly into concerns more domestic than global.

Moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS pleaded: "Let me get back to foreign policy."

Good luck with that.

Romney plowed on, speaking about the glories of the Massachusetts education record, and then continued on about his intentions to cut taxes and his still unarticulated plans to pay for them. ("I invite you to visit my website," Romney said, as he has before, though the campaign's website itself doesn't explain how that revenue gap would be plugged.) Romney referred to Appleton, Wis. (though sadly not explicitly pandering to the Harry Houdini voting bloc); Obama invoked the bailout of the car industry — a question of key importance to voters in Ohio and Michigan.

NBC's Chuck Todd, tweeting at 9:40 pm EDT: This debate is a mess right now.

Obama unveiled one zinger after another, on the attack, leaning in to fence; Romney kept the sarcasm sheathed but criticized without taking substantive issue. "Attacking me is not an agenda," Romney said, in only slightly different form three times, which was itself a bit of a curlicue of logic, given that he married so much of his criticism of the president with agreement with his policies. Romney even employed a more peace-loving rhetoric. It must have been a conscious choice to temper his approach, as Obama took a subdued approach during the first debate.

But it wasn't particularly illuminating to the viewer at home.

There were some distinctions: Romney, for example, wanted to keep military spending at current levels, while Obama promised to realize some of that peace dividend.

Pundits on CNN (David Gergen), Fox News (Brit Hume) and CBS (Norah O'Donnell) all said that Romney appeared to pass the "commander in chief" test — to look presidential while talking about foreign policy.

Schieffer's questions were very broad and very predictable, and even on those terms he did not frequently get the two candidates to respond to them. Some of the topics were essentially worthy, such as his opening salvo on Libya. (The question on Israel contained almost a Colbertian flavor at its essence: Great ally? Or greatest ally?)

No word about the economic crisis in Europe, which poses a real threat to the U.S. economy. One stray reference to Latin America. The 90 minutes boiled down almost entirely to combating terrorist threats to America and American interests in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere; combating the Iranian threat to Israel; and combating China's threat to U.S. trade.

And Schieffer missed opportunities on the viewers' behalf. At one point, he asked Romney for his position on the Obama administration's use of drones to target terrorists in Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries in which they operate. A fair question. A good topic.

Romney expressed support; Obama said it was necessary to chase after the nebulous network of al-Qaida beyond killing Osama bin Laden himself — and that was it.

The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, in a column for Bloomberg View, framed that same question this way toward Obama and by extension his Republican challenger: "Drone strikes you've ordered against targets in Pakistan have killed, by some estimates, several hundred innocent civilians, including many children. Is this a moral strategy to defeat terrorists?"

Schieffer started the night with an allusion to the events of 50 years ago — to the day — when President John F. Kennedy revealed to the American public the existence of Soviet nuclear weapons stationed in Cuba, just 90 miles away.

Laura Rozen, who has reported extensively on foreign policy and national security for a variety of publications, emailed me this question, no doubt informed by the back and forth over stern words about Iran's nuclear capabilities: "Recent scholarship reveals behind the scenes compromise that helped defuse potential U.S. Soviet confrontation over Cuban Missile Crisis. What do you think is the role for compromise in leading U.S. foreign policy? Do you think there is ever a role for compromise in conducting U.S. foreign policy?"

It was a time when such a broad-strokes question might well have yielded some true illumination.

I watched this debate in Columbus, Ohio, in the heart of the state said to the linchpin for the hopes of both campaigns. On the CBS affiliate here, an Obama campaign commercial appeared immediately following the network's coverage of the debate. It slapped at Romney, accusing him of hostility — not to foreign powers but to schoolteachers and, by extension, to the education of schoolteachers.

If money speaks, that tells you on what grounds the candidates believe the White House will be won. The candidates knew foreign policy decides few elections. And that came through loud and clear on TV.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.