Published for The Washington Post, October 23
“The first requirement of a statesman is that he be dull,” said Dean Acheson.
During the final presidential debate, Mitt Romney was every bit the statesman. On foreign policy issues, he was well informed, earnest and gaffe-free. He refused to take the bait of hypothetical questions or Barack Obama’s continual attacks. “Well, of course I don’t concur with what the president said about my own record” was about as ferocious as it got. All evening, when Obama unleashed fireworks, Romney smothered them with a blanket.
We know from the second debate that Romney is pricklier than this. So his self-restraint was also evidence of a strategy. It amounted to a bold bet that boldness was not required. Romney set out to be relentlessly reassuring. Instead of pointing out contrasts, he systematically attended to his own credibility.
Romney often acted as if he were the only person on the stage — like a man trying to paint a self-portrait in the midst of a food fight. The image that emerged was a foreign policy moderate in tone and substance. Romney seemed a man who holds certain values but lacks disruptive projects and causes. He criticized Obama’s foreign policy mainly on implementation — pressure for Middle Eastern reform should have come earlier, Iranian sanctions should be tighter — rather than proposing an alternative grand strategy.