Debate Flashback: Obama's Russia Zinger Didn't Age Well

Debate Flashback: Obama's Russia Zinger Didn't Age Well
AP Photo/Eric Gay, File
Debate Flashback: Obama's Russia Zinger Didn't Age Well
AP Photo/Eric Gay, File
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It’s Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, the date of the second and final debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Is it anti-climactic? Well, it means little to the 35 million people who have voted early. And judging by the difficulty the networks have had in finding actual “undecided” voters for their televised town halls, many of the 100 million Americans who haven’t yet voted have made up their minds.

At least the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has taken its share of grief, didn’t counterprogram against a World Series game. What a difference a year makes. On this date in 2019, the Series opened featuring a team from the nation’s capital. Ever so briefly, Washingtonians were united, albeit around baseball.

On this date in 2012, a presidential debate took place between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. In the first debate that year, President Obama was inexplicably ineffective. He seemed distracted, even more diffident than usual. In the second faceoff with Mitt Romney, thanks in part to a timely assist from moderator Candy Crowley, Obama did better. That night, it was Romney who didn’t seem himself. Normally affable and polite, the former Massachusetts governor sounded impatient, interrupting the president several times (although by current standards of decorum, it would hardly be noticeable).

So, the Oct. 22 debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton was the rubber match. The agenda was foreign policy, a topic that ought to favor a commander-in-chief. After it was over, most polls and prognosticators did declare Obama the winner. But one of the major points he scored at Romney’s expense has not aged well.

Earlier that year, at a March summit in South Korea, Obama was caught on a hot mic telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he’d have more flexibility negotiating on missile defense after the 2012 election. Originally named the “Strategic Defense Initiative,” the U.S. missile defense program has freaked out the Kremlin since Ronald Reagan announced its creation back when Vladimir Putin was a minor KGB functionary in the old Soviet Union.

Obama wasn’t a fan of “Star Wars” defense, as SDI was called by critics. In confiding to Medvedev, whom Obama tacitly acknowledged was a Putin pawn, he indicated a willingness to barter away America’s advantage in space defense.

“On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved, but it’s important for him to give me space,” Obama told Medvedev, referring to Putin.

“Yeah, I understand,” Medvedev answered.

Romney, as conservatives’ critics like to say, pounced. Asked soon after about the Obama’s comments by Wolf Blitzer, he replied, “This is without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe. They fight for every cause for the world’s worst actors. The idea that [Obama] has more flexibility in mind for Russia is very, very troubling indeed.”

When the CNN anchorman followed up by asking the GOP candidate if he considered Russia a bigger foe than Iran, China, or North Korea, Romney didn’t back down: “Of course, the greatest threat that the world faces is a nuclear Iran, and a nuclear North Korea is already troubling enough,” he replied. “But when these terrible actors pursue their course in the world and we go to the United Nations looking for ways to stop them ... who is it that always stands up with the world's worst actors? It’s always Russia, typically with China alongside. And so in terms of a geopolitical foe, a nation that’s on the Security Council that has the heft of the Security Council, and is of course is a massive nuclear power, Russia is the geopolitical foe.”

The following day, Romney penned an op-ed in Foreign Policy magazine reiterating the point. He didn’t use the work “foe” in the column, but did single out Russian “intransigence,” adding, “For three years, the sum total of President Obama’s policy toward Russia has been: ‘We give, Russia gets.’”

Most rational observers of the world scene would agree with Romney’s carefully expressed concerns about Russia. But the criticism of his approach had stuck in Obama’s craw. Seeing a chance to portray his opponent as an unhip creature stuck in the Reagan era, Obama unleashed a well-rehearsed rebuttal in the third 2012 debate.

“Governor Romney, I’m glad that you recognize that al-Qaeda is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not al-Qaeda,” he said. “… The 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”

The best that can be said about the president’s snarky zinger is that it was politically effective. Obama was certainly cheered on by other Democrats and media commentators, who piled on Romney with glee. Their tune changed abruptly when Donald Trump arrived on the political scene and began saying weirdly positive things about Putin. Does anybody in this town not practice situational ethics, you ask?

Well, at least one person -- a former secretary of state, no less -- issued an unstinting mea culpa.

During the 2012 campaign, Clinton administration Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had echoed Obama’s mocking of Romney. Albright said that the GOP nominee’s views on Russia “made no sense.” She added that he was “truly out of date” and “just wrong.”

Last year, however, in testimony before the House Intelligence Committee last year, Albright set the record straight. “I personally owe an apology to now-Senator Romney because I think that we underestimated what was going on in Russia,” she said. “Putin has put them back on the scene.”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.



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