WASHINGTON – Highlights from the third presidential debate Tuesday night between Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney, just two weeks from the Nov. 6 election.
Ye olde weaponry
Pouncing with gusto, Obama gave Romney little quarter over the GOP rival’s repeated criticism that the U.S. Navy is too small and has fewer ships than it did in 1916.
“Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets,” Obama said, painting Romney as out of touch and arguing the nature of America’s military has changed. “We have these things called ‘aircraft carriers,’ and planes land on them.”
Obama continued his manifest military history: “We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”
“And so, the question is not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting ships,” Obama said with a nod to the classic board game. “It’s, ‘What are our capabilities?”’
Romney said during a speech at the Virginia Military Institute earlier this month he wanted to boost the Navy’s fleet by 15 ships a year, including three submarines.
Twitter said Obama’s comment was the most tweeted moment of the debate.
Obama turned snarky at several points during the debate, at one point saying Romney’s views were so antiquated that “the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”
Obama stayed tough and aggressive through the 90-minute forum, still climbing back from a debate performance two weeks ago on domestic policy that was criticized as sleepy and diffident. But the president also mocked Romney, using snark to portray his Republican opponent as out of his depth on international affairs.
After Romney expressed concern about al-Qaeda’s potential danger to America early in the debate, Obama said he was glad the Republican hopeful recognized the terror group as a potential threat.
“A few months ago when you were asked what is the biggest geopolitical group facing America, you said Russia, not al-Qaeda. And the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back, because the Cold War has been over for 20 years.”
Obama said Romney’s views on other issues were also rooted in the past, suggesting his views on social policy were stuck in the 1950s and his position on economic issues were planted in the 1920s.
Schieffer’s steady hand
Bob Schieffer of CBS News achieved at least one victory in Monday’s debate: He didn’t rouse much angry reaction from disgruntled viewers.
The 78-year old “Face the Nation” host managed the 90-minute showdown with ease and folksy charm, quoting his late mother in the debate’s final minutes: “Go vote, it makes you feel big and strong.” He also deadpanned when Romney professed his affection for teachers. “I think we all love teachers,” Schieffer said.
Schieffer was not particularly forceful through the debate, leading to some grumbling on Twitter. But there were few complaints that he interjected himself too strongly or favored one candidate over the other.
“Kudos! (hash)Schieffer stayed out of the way and did the best job of all,” Twitter user (at)stupidcompanies said.
The biggest criticism came from some viewers who thought Schieffer was too old for the task.
“America cannot afford moderators OLDER than either candidate. Such a cold war mindset,” Twitter user (at)adityadevsood said.
What about Benghazi?
Romney continued a trend of moderating his foreign policy positions, an effort to present himself as a sound commander in chief even as he narrowed the gap between his stances and the president’s in several instances.
He offered unusual praise for Obama’s war efforts in Afghanistan, declaring the 2010 surge of 33,000 U.S. troops a success and asserting that efforts to train Afghan security forces are on track to enable the U.S. and its allies to put the Afghans fully in charge of security by the end of 2014. He said explicitly that U.S. forces should complete their withdrawal on that schedule; previously he has criticized the setting of a specific withdrawal date.
And on Iran, Romney mollified his previous criticism of Obama’s sanctions policy. He stressed that going to war to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon was only a last option, softening the hawkish tone that had been a hallmark of his campaign.
Romney barely addressed the simmering dispute over the Obama administration’s handling of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the American ambassador and three other Americans.