Vice President Joe Biden and Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin participate in the vice presidential debate at Centre College on Thursday in Danville, Ky.
Say what you will about Vice President Joe Biden. Thursday night he rescued liberals from their state of deep despair over President Barack Obama’s dispirited performance in the first presidential debate. In so doing Biden may have saved the Obama administration from electoral disaster. The gushing from liberal/Democratic pundits in the post-debate analyses was the sound of relief. Whether or not that relief will be short-lived will depend on the president’s own performance in the second debate Tuesday night.
Apropos of this, I learned something last week that I believe sheds light on the question of why President Obama seemingly handed the first presidential debate — if not the election — to his Republican challenger, former Gov. Mitt Romney.
Tuesday night the PBS program “Frontline” devoted two hours to integrated, biographical sketches of the president and the governor. I have read many of the books, pro and con, on both men, so I was familiar with the basic material. Yet watching the life stories of the two men played out side by side — and against the backdrop of the debate — the differences in their narratives could not have been more stark as two diametrically opposite portraits emerged.
Obama grew up as a poor, multiracial loner. Whether in Hawaii, Indonesia or America he never quite fit in, and the chief survival skill he developed was to get along. Notably, he did this as the editor of the prestigious but politically fractious Harvard Law Review where minority conservative lawyers praised his leadership and for the respect he showed their views. In a world which fears the angry black man, Obama learned never to be threatening.
Mitt Romney grew up with an abundance of life’s privileges — but the burden of an outsized father and the demands of his Mormon faith. As a young man he had to spend two and a half years in France as a missionary — trying to convert the French to Mormonism. As one of the obligations of this faith, adherents have to totally abstain from alcohol. So imagine how many doors must have been slammed in Mitt’s face in a country where wine is a much greater part of the culture than mother’s milk.
Obama stepped onto the debate stage having achieved his success by usually avoiding confrontation. For his part, Romney experienced major rejection in France and later as a businessman and politician decided the formula for success was not to force people to buy something they don’t want — but to shape your product and/or yourself in whatever way necessary to make the sale.
With apologies for the pop psychology and oversimplifications, those were the two men we saw in the first debate.
Also in the past week, we were given a glimpse into the Romney mind on foreign policy. He chose to make his speech to the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. VMI is what Kelley Vlahos, a contributing editor for the American Conservative magazine, describes as “one of the nation’s oldest and most reliable bastions of Southern partisan conservatism and Confederate military tradition, a virtual no-go for Democrats and mushy peaceniks.”
The speech was of course well-received on site, but the reviews generally made the point that while Romney’s rhetoric had been harsh with an almost Cold War flavor, his policy proposals were not remarkable. Among the critics, David Sanger of The New York Times was typical: “Indeed, while the theme Mr. Romney hit the hardest in his speech — that the Obama era has been one marked by ‘weakness’ and the abandonment of allies — has political appeal, the specific descriptions of what Mr. Romney would do ... sound at times quite close to Mr. Obama’s approach.”
In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Romney said he would “recommit America to the goal of a democratic prosperous Palestine living side by side in peace and security with Israel.” That is normal diplomatic boilerplate. But last May when he was making his infamous “47 percent of Americans are slackers” speech to rich contributors in Florida, Romney said, “There is just no way” to resolve this dispute because Palestinians “are not wanting to see peace.” He added that “this is going to remain an unsolved problem.” It certainly won’t be solved if his understanding of the region is based on such one-sided views he presumably picked up from his old pal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Finally, last week Romney and his cohorts in the House of Representatives tried to make political hay out of the terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed.
It is certainly true that the Obama administration changed its story about what happened — based on changes in the analyses of American intelligence. Initially they said it was an anti-American demonstration inspired by the YouTube video that mocked the prophet Mohammed, that was later hijacked by a terrorist militia. It is now admitted by the White House that there was no demonstration and that this was a terrorist assault by a militia with ties to al-Qaida. Based on this, Romney is trying to conflate the Benghazi attack with the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, which is more than a bit of a stretch. Obviously, the point of this exercise is to diminish the importance of Obama’s decision to kill Osama bin Laden.
The allegations the Obama administration was to blame for the Benghazi attack because it repeatedly denied requests for more security sound credible. But the former Tripoli embassy security chief who made the charges at the House hearing also said that even if every one of his requests to beef up security had been met, there is no way they could have stopped the ferocity of the Benghazi attack.
Also, it is worth noting that the Obama administration’s requests for funds to pay for enhanced embassy security in sensitive parts of the world, especially since the Arab Spring revolutions, were cut by House Republicans by half a billion dollars.
Barrie Dunsmore is a former foreign correspondent for ABC News. He lives in Charlotte.MORE IN Perspective
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