This late in the campaign, everything is about swing states – and the foreign policy debate was largely about Florida, where moderate Jews could well decide who gets the state’s 29 electoral votes.
On those grounds, on the basis of issues important to Florida Jews, President Obama won this debate, but in a bizarre, looking-glass sort of way in which the candidates seemingly exchanged personalities. Mitt Romney sounded like Obama: reasonable, measured, and knowledgeable about foreign policy. Barack Obama sounded like Romney: making strong rhetorical points with little attention to detail.
On Israel, for example, it was Obama who struck first, citing his support of the Iron Dome defense system, and using the phrase “stand with Israel” numerous times. Romney, meanwhile, sounded like a Democrat: arguing for peace talks with the Palestinians, and a measured approach to Iran.
So too on the emotional issues likely to resonate with the bubbes and zaydes of Palm Beach County. Could anyone have predicted that President Obama would invoke the holocaust in his discussion of the State of Israel? And yet that’s what he did, noting that on his trip to Israel, he visited Yad Vashem (the holocaust memorial, he explained to the non-Jewish voters who happened to be watching the debate too), whereas Romney went to fundraisers.
But that’s not all – this debate was often a lesson in Israeli geography. Obama visited Sderot. Romney visited Hertzliya. What’s next: Obama prefers Sima’s meorav Yerushalmi, but Romney likes Sami’s. At times it was hard to tell whether this was a presidential debate or an itinerary from Birthright Israel.
Incidentally, the contrast between Sderot and Hertzliya was more apt than most viewers would understand. Sderot, which Obama visited, is a working class community of people of color. If it were an American town, it would be Democrat country. Hertzliya is an affluent, mostly Ashkenazi suburb of Tel Aviv – more Romney’s base than Obama’s.
But I digress. (Anyway, in Israel, Sephardim tend to vote more conservatively than Ashkenazim).
On substantive issues, the two candidates were in heated agreement. Although Romney faulted Obama’s leadership, there was little daylight between the two on Syria, Iran, Egypt, or Libya. Obama’s best moment was his jab about horses and bayonets – and its tacit suggestion that Romney is not ready to lead. Romney’s best moment was his persuasive litany of how American influence has waned around the world. (His worst? Saying that Syria is “Iran’s route to the sea.” Take a look at this image the Democratic Party sent around shortly afterwards. Oops.)
Those two snapshots illustrate how Obama won this debate … by speaking like a Republican.
Romney presented himself as persuasive and competent. But Obama went for the jugular. He spoke so directly to Jewish concerns that he can fairly be accused of pandering to them.
Then again, that Holocaust story could conceivably win him the election.