To put in perspective who won last night's debate, consider a polling tidbit. A few weeks ago, after the first contest between President Obama and Mitt Romney, a CBS poll of undecided voters taken immediately after the event showed the Republican winning the debate by 24 points.
CBS polled undecided voters again last night, and found Obama winning this debate by 30 points.
Debate analysis is a bit like art evaluation -- not everyone sees the same thing -- but I not only thought the president excelled last night, I think Romney very nearly embarrassed himself. After six years of campaigning for the nation's highest office, asking voters to make him the leader of the free world, the former one-term governor conveyed an unnerving message to the nation in the year's final debate: he neither knows nor cares about international affairs. As a New York Times editorial noted, Romney at times "sounded like a beauty pageant contestant groping for an answer to the final question."
As best as I can tell, Romney adopted a three-pronged strategy for the event in Boca Raton, Fla.
Part One: Agree with Obama
For months, Romney, Paul Ryan, and their Republican allies have been desperate to paint Obama as pursuing a weak and misguided foreign policy.
Last night, while the president was on the offensive throughout, exposing Romney's contradictions, reversals, and overall ignorance, the Republican did the opposite, playing down differences, and endorsing the president's position on everything from Afghanistan to Iranian sanctions to Syria to Egypt. In some cases this meant abandoning positions Romney has long held, and in other cases, it meant pretending his agenda isn't his agenda.
It left voters with a detached message that bordered on incoherence: Obama has a failed foreign policy ... which I intend to implement if elected.
Part Two: Change the subject
Romney had ample time to prepare to discuss foreign policy, and a team of Bush/Cheney administration officials to tell him how to at least sound like he's answering the questions, but he repeatedly tried to change the subject away from foreign policy during the debate on foreign policy. Over the course of 90 minutes, Romney mentioned Osama bin Laden twice, mentioned food stamps three times, and mentioned school teachers eight times.
Plenty of strategists have said voters will find this compelling, since domestic issues trump international affairs in 2012, but no candidate benefits from appearing weak. This was a debate in which Romney was supposed to appear ready to lead a nation during a time of war and international "tumult." Instead, Romney appeared to be running for governor, not president.
Part Three: Make stuff up
We'll explore some of the key issues in more detail as the morning progresses, but when Romney wasn't agreeing with Obama and trying to change the subject, he was relying on his signature move -- saying things that aren't true and hoping no one notices.
The president got exactly what he wanted out of this debate. He demonstrated a command of international affairs, and took Romney apart, point by point. In contrast, by the time the event was over, I wasn't at all clear what Romney even hoped to accomplish. In his closing statement at the foreign policy debate, he didn't mention foreign policy.
The larger takeaway for voters is that the Republican candidate just doesn't seem to care -- and also doesn't think he has to care.
Mr. Romney made that clear at a July fundraiser in Montana as he rehashed the challenges Mr. Reagan faced when he took office. He recounted how Mr. Baker, a former secretary of state, held a national security meeting about Latin America during the first 100 days of Mr. Reagan's presidency.
"And after the meeting, President Reagan called me in and said, 'I want no more national-security meetings over the next 100 days -- all of our time has to be focused on getting our economy going,' " Mr. Romney recalled Mr. Baker saying.
In reality, this exchange between Reagan and Baker never happened. I don't know who told Romney this or whether Romney simply made it up out of whole cloth, but Reagan dealt with plenty of national-security meetings early in his presidency -- as all presidents do.
But the anecdote, when combined with last night's debate, makes me wonder if Romney fully understands the nature of the responsibilities he's seeking.