Matt Miller - The Archives

Third debate: Romney's baffling strategy
The Washington Post, October 23, 2012

The big story tonight was what Mitt Romney didn't do. I'm a simple guy. I assumed Romney's main goal in tonight's debate would be to turn foreign policy questions into economic policy questions in ways designed to move Ohio voters into his column. I assumed he'd do this because no persuadable voters are sitting out there waiting to hear the candidates' policies on Syria or the Euro. I assumed that the Romney camp already believed their man had met the hurdle of being perceived as a credible commander in chief, a hurdle passed through his commanding overall performance in the first debate.

But that wasn't what Romney did at all. He didn't turn the debate toward the link between foreign policy and the economy until the last ten minutes. By my clock Romney didn't get to China's trade and currency issues—and their impact on American jobs—until there were eight minutes left. And he let Obama at that time tout his auto rescue as a huge jobs savior.

Plainly my assumption about Romney's strategy was wrong. What might that mean? Usually when a candidate plays it as safe as Romney did tonight, you'd assume that candidate was in the lead. Could it be that Romney thinks he's ahead (or close enough not to risk rocking the boat) and his chief objective was to do no harm? At times it felt like Romney was auditioning to be Obama's secretary of Commerce in his second term—a reasonable Republican who basically thinks the president is right on most foreign policy issues but thinks we could nonetheless find ways to boost the economy a bit. And Obama might easily have said, "You know, Mitt, you've got some good ideas, why not join the team and see what you can help us do?"

I don't get it. Maybe it's me. For all the momentum Romney's shown in recent weeks, I thought he still needed to shake things up in order to win. This was the last chance he had to shake things up. He obviously didn't think he needed to. One of us is clearly wrong about where this race stands. We'll know soon enough.