Nuanced policy arguments be dammed! Tonight's foreign policy debate is a battle of who can sound toughest without advocating all-out war. For months, observers have waited to find daylight between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama's foreign policy positions, but despite Romney's allegations of weakness, he has yet to outline preferences that differ widely from Obama's on important issues like Afghanistan and Iran. Given Sunday's mega scoop in The New York Times that the Obama administration and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks after the election (which was then vigorously denied by the White House), Iran's nuclear program is expected to loom large at tonight's debate. But neither candidate has used the story to contrast his position with his opponent. Instead, the candidates appear ready to make tonight about rhetorical toughness than anything else.
Spurring the candidates on is a Friday Pew poll showing the public favors a tougher U.S. stance on Iran at the cost of avoiding military conflict. "56 percent now say it is more important to take a firm stand against Iran’s nuclear program, while 35 percent say it is more important to avoid a military conflict," reads the Pew poll. That's a more hawkish view from January when "50% favored taking a firm stand against Iran and 41% said it was more important to avoid a confrontation." As a result, you have both candidates stamping out any signs of weakness ahead of tonight's debate.
For the Obama campaign, that means denying the New York Times report from the highest mountain top, even though the administration has long said one-on-one negotiations with Iran has been its plan. In response to the story, NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor issued a flat denial. "It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections. We continue to work with the P-5 [+1, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – U.S., U.K., China, France, Russia, plus Germany] on a diplomatic solution and have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally."
The fact that the reported plan was to engage "after the election" played perfectly into the GOP scare narrative that the president is planning on selling the country out after the election as indicated by his hot-mic moment in March when he told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that “this is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.” This was simply the latest sign, according to Republicans.
But Obama has a comeback locked and loaded for tonight's debate. A senior administration official tells Politico's Mike Allen that his remarks on Iran will emphasize his role in absolutely crushing the Iranian economy (whether or not that's something to brag about is debatable, but it does sound tough!) Here's what the source says Obama will say:
“I have put in place crippling sanctions. Just in the last month, you’ve seen their oil revenues collapse, their currency collapse. I’ve said I’d do everything I have to, to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Governor Romney has been unable to articulate any policy ideas that I’m not already doing, except go to war."
Some pretty tough talk. And indeed, the Romney campaign is in quite the bind. It's already done almost everything it can to sound tough on Iran short of advocating all-out war. It also never ruled out bilateral negotiations with Iran. That makes pesky little questions like this a problem: Gov. Romney, would you engage in one-on-one talks with Iran? The campaign first started receiving questions about this while holding a football game between press flacks and reporters over the weekend. ABC News found it impossible to get an answer:
Asked if he would be open to one-on-one talks with Iran, a reference to the White House shooting down a story yesterday in the New York Times that the administration had agreed to the talks, an aide quickly jumped in, “Guys this is a football game, come on.”
“I thought you were talking about one-on-one talks with the President, I was about to answer,” Romney said, laughing.
Another reporter asked Romney if he feels ready for Monday’s debate, to which Romney responded, “Ready for football!”
We're guessing "Ready for football!" isn't going to work on the debate stage tonight. And that's where Romney's foreign policy adviser Dan Senor enters the fray in an interview this morning with NBC News Today. Unable to wiggle out of former policy positions on negotiating with Iran, Senor relied on the meta argument that Americans instinctively know that Mitt Romney will be tougher on Iran than Obama. “I think a lot of Americans would probably agree he’d be the better guy to be at the negotiating table on behalf of the United States than President Obama, given that we are four years closer today to Iran getting a nuclear weapon than we were when President Obama took over,” Senor said. When asked if Romney would hold direct talks, Senor refused to rule out one-on-one negotiations. “It’s going to be a comprehensive strategy and we should utilize a range of tools in our toolkit in achieving that diplomatic outcome and Gov. Romney’s not going to rule anything out. He’s been very clear about that for some time,” he said. In short: In lieu of anything substantive to talk about, expect tonight's debate to be an audition for the next Rambo sequel rather than a respectful dispute about separate foreign policy visions.