5 Things Mitt Romney Must Do in Tonight's Foreign Policy Debate

Romney doesn't have to win, just reassure domestically focused voters that he can be commander-in-chief.

Mitt Romney campaigns at Ariel Corporation in Mount Vernon, Ohio.

Tonight's final debate should be fought on President Barack Obama's turf. He has the experience—presidents conduct foreign policy; corporate chieftains, even those at the top of the heap, do not. And he has the record—Osama bin Laden is dead, in case you haven't heard.

But there also is much in that record with which challenger Mitt Romney can take issue when he meets the president on the stage at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. He can take another shot at the president's dissembling on the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya. He can discuss China, the Middle East, Iran, Israel, and immigration.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

But Romney must keep one goal in mind: His job tonight is not to deliver memorable haymakers. It is not even, in a sense, to "win" the debate. It is to show an American public far more focused on domestic policy that they can trust him to do a credible, consistent job on the one issue presidents handle primarily alone—and, if he can, to show President Obama has not succeeded.

How does he accomplish this? By stressing five key points.

  1. Not a warmonger. President Obama will want to imply Romney is dangerous, that he wants to take a war weary nation back onto the battlefield. Romney must make clear that he will hold America's adversaries to account but will do so in a disciplined way that values peace and stability. Polls show voters value stability in foreign lands, particularly the Middle East, over expansion of democracy.
  2. A strong domestic economy strengthens foreign policy, and a strong U.S. military breeds peace. Romney should make the case we wouldn't be at the brink of sequestration—and the $55 billion cut it will bring to defense spending—if President Obama had done more to lift the economy. He should make the case—as Ronald Reagan did before him—that nobody ever took us to war because we were "too strong," and that perceived American weakness has made the Middle East and elsewhere more dangerous. And he should point out the hundreds of thousands of jobs in key swing states—Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, and Colorado among them—that will be lost if the sequestration cuts go through.
  3. Libya equals failed presidential leadership. Romney should force the president to answer for the half-hearted meddling in Libya that left four dead. Obama's "not optimal" remark to a comedy host only compounds the sense the president has not come to terms with what happened or what role his administration's actions played. Romney flubbed this in the second debate, but he has a golden opportunity to make up for it tonight. He must swing, and he cannot miss.
  4. China. Americans want the United States to get tougher on China, particularly on trade and currency. Polling indicates this is a winner for Romney—independents give him a bigger edge on this issue than any other foreign policy question—and he should capitalize.
  5. Israel and Iran. Romney should make the point that no president in living memory has been less aligned with Israel and this has real consequences. Iran has read this as a signal it could split the United States and Israel, go forward with production of a nuclear weapon and undermine stability in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere. Egypt has moved away from Israel because it sees no threat from this to its relationship with the United States. A regional war could be at hand, and the president would be at least somewhat responsible.
    • Read Brad Bannon: Foreign Policy Debate Could End Mitt Romney's Campaign.
    • Read G. Philip Hughes: How Stupid Do Obama and Biden Think We Are?.
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