The results from last night’s debate are in, so it’s official: foreign policy is boring. So boring that the debate isn’t going to have a discernible impact on the race for the White House. That means Mitt Romney’s recent momentum in key battleground states such as Ohio and Florida will continue, enabling him to pile up a majority of electoral-college votes by election day.
Personally, I plan to vote for Obama. I can’t stand the Republican Party’s position on abortion, and Romney’s budget math makes no sense to me. But this election isn’t about abortion, and as recent education surveys indicate, many voters can’t do math. Like most presidential elections, this year’s race is about the economy, stupid — and in particular, what happens to incumbents when the economy is weak.
We’ve known how voters felt about Mr. Obama’s economic performance for some time. His job approval has been below 50% since Thanksgiving of 2009 and a sizable majority of voters think the nation is on the wrong track. If the economy was booming, these numbers wouldn’t be so negative. But Obama is shaping up to be the first president in modern times who presided over a weak economy for four straight years, so of course voters are looking for an alternative.
The Obama campaign’s only hope of defeating an accomplished and charismatic challenger like Romney was to convince voters that he was a right-wing extremist. That wasn’t hard at first, because the Republican base kept forcing Romney to take positions that most voters don’t like. The need to secure his conservative base explains why Romney waited longer than most candidates do after the primary season to tack to the middle.
But now he’s there, and his numerous flip-flops on issues — which President Obama sought to highlight in last night’s debate — provide ironic proof that he is no ideologue. He may sound like a neocon when it comes to the Middle East, but he’s basically a centrist who sees the world the way Obama does. And he may sound like an evangelical when he is cornered on abortion, but the truth of the matter is that he just doesn’t care much about the issue. Like most businessmen who turn to politics, he is focused mainly on the economy.
The reason Mr. Romney has been surging since the first presidential debate is that the Obama campaign’s bid to paint him as a nut has failed. The president’s weak performance in that first debate gave Romney the opportunity to look and sound like a Commander in Chief, and each subsequent encounter has reinforced the perception that he really is presidential material. Mr. Obama, frankly, has seemed less presidential than Romney in the exchanges — which may reflect the fact that for all his gifts, Obama was not tested much in the political arena before winning the White House.
So even though I’m going to cast my ballot for Obama, I don’t think most of my fellow voters will. The oldest lesson of American politics is that when the economy is weak, the incumbent loses. The only time that doesn’t happen is when the challenger has flaws that make him or her seem dangerous. Governor Romney has convinced most voters that he is lacking in such flaws, and he therefore will carry the trifecta states of Florida, Ohio and Virginia — thereby securing the White House.