President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney sparred over foreign policy Monday evening in their final debate and, as in the previous debates, neither candidate made a direct reference to LGBT issues.
During the debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., Obama took an aggressive posture, challenging Romney for switching his positions on issues, while Romney appeared passive and agreed with Obama on several key points. Both candidates made explicit references to protecting the rights of women overseas. Romney brought up promoting “gender equity” in the Middle East when talking about U.S. strategy in the Arab world, and Obama said “protecting religious minorities and women” should be a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy.
Other references to social issues were more general. At one point, Obama mocked Romney for his social policies without naming any position on social issues in particular, saying, “Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.”
Later, Romney said protecting “human rights” overseas was essential — but didn’t enumerate any groups for which the human rights should be protected.
Jeff Krehely, vice president of LGBT research at the Center for American Progress, said prior to the debate any discussion of LGBT issues would likely have exposed Romney’s ignorance of LGBT human rights abuses overseas.
“It’s pretty clear that Gov. Romney would be an abysmal president for LGBT Americans, since he’s made a political calculation to abandon any support for affirmative LGBT federal rights at home,” Krehely said. “But it would be good for voters to know whether he’s even aware that being gay is actually a punishable crime in many countries, and if he would continue to implement existing U.S. State Department policies that are helping to change that. If he’s not willing to do so, it’s a pretty clear indication of how far right he has drifted and just how badly he wants to be president.”
Turmoil in Syria, where an estimated 30,000 people have been killed under the Assad regime, was a contentious point during the debate. Romney faulted the Obama administration for not taking a leadership role in ousting the dictator, but Obama said the United States organized “Friends of Syria” and is mobilizing humanitarian support. When moderator Bob Scheiffer asked Romney what more he would do in the country, he didn’t commit to any different policy and said he doesn’t think military involvement is appropriate at this time.
Romney also faulted Obama for not placing enough emphasis on the U.S. partnership with Israel and said other countries in the Middle East noticed that Obama didn’t visit Israel when making a trip to the region during an early part of his administration. But Obama recalled that he visited Israel as a candidate and toured the Holocaust museum at Yad Vashem “to remind myself of the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable.”
The candidates also discussed the appropriate size for the U.S. military. Romney criticized Obama by saying our Navy is smaller now than any time since 1916 and the Air Force is older and smaller than any time since its founding in 1947. Obama responded by saying the military has evolved over time and “we also have fewer horses and bayonets.” The “horses and bayonets” line immediately became an Internet sensation.
Throughout the debate, Romney emphasized the threat of Iran becoming a nuclear power and often spoke about the need to protect U.S. interests abroad by building a strong economy at home. Notably, Romney beyond his opening statement avoided the recent controversy over terrorist attacks at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the deaths of four Americans — including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens — despite his earlier attacks on Obama on that issue.
The general consensus of the debate was Obama came out on top. Following the debate, a CBS News poll of debate viewers found that 53 percent believed Obama won compared to 23 percent who gave victory to Romney and 24 percent who said it was a tie.
Many observers said Romney appeared to agree with Obama on much of his foreign policy, including on the issue of drone strikes in Afghanistan when Romney said he supports that move “entirely.” The Washington Post’s Chris Cilliiza wrote Romney, “struggled to differentiate how his foreign policy would offer a break with what Obama has pursued over the past four years.”
Jerame Davis, executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats, said Obama “won tonight’s debate.”
“Mitt Romney is not ready for the world stage, he is not qualified to lead our country, and he has proven time and again he will say anything to get elected,” Davis said. “Americans should not be fooled by a slick sales pitch from an empty suit. President Obama has the stature, temperament, knowledge and vision to be the leader of the free world. Mitt Romney does not.”
Richard Grenell, who’s gay and briefly served as foreign policy spokesperson for the Romney campaign, said the debate revealed the Democratic messaging that Romney isn’t yet prepared to lead the country is false.
“It’s clear the Obama narrative that Gov. Romney is too extreme and naïve on foreign policy issues has imploded,” Grenell said. “They’ve wasted six months and millions of dollars on a message that fell apart tonight. The Obama team has quickly pivoted to start a new narrative that Romney is agreeing with President Obama on foreign affairs. The Obama team is panicking because they sense that the president isn’t going to get re-elected.”