In 1964, Senator Barry Goldwater famously observed that "moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue," but in last night's final 2012 Debate, Governor Mitt Romney made a distinct decision to moderate his tone in pursuit of the Presidency.
Conversely, President Barack Obama again emerged as the aggressor, but the incumbent's assertiveness, while effective in the second debate, deteriorated into dismissive and rude behavior in the debate finale, which may further dim his chances of remaining in The White House.
Here are five factors to remember from the third Presidential Debate:
With the Conservative GOP base and the "Anybody but Obama" crowd firmly behind him, Romney made an obvious appeal to a key group of voters: undecided women.
Even as he congratulated President Obama on "taking out Osama bin Laden and going after the leadership in al-Qaeda," Governor Romney then said "we can't kill our way out of this mess."
The purpose of these remarks in Romney's opening statement was clear: by conceding the single obvious achievement of the Obama Administration, the Governor deprived the President of "rhetorical glory." Moreover, Romney effectively separated himself from the Bush-Cheney Doctrine by adopting a less strident tone—a direct appeal to female voters who cast ballots for Obama in 2008, but who have doubts about him now.
If Conservatives began to doubt the rationale of Romney's rhetoric, he reassured them fifteen minutes into the debate. Eschewing an extended discussion of Libya now that the mainstream media is pursuing the story, the Governor recalled an embarrassing moment for President Obama regarding Russia—and became the "Reaganesque Romney." With an unmistakable reference to the March episode in which an open microphone caught President Obama asking then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to explain to Vladimir Putin that he needed "space" so that after re-election, he would have more "flexibility," Governor Romney said last night "I'm certainly not going to say to him, I'll give you more flexibility after the election. After the election, he'll get more back- bone."
2. OBAMA'S BEST MOMENT
Governor Romney sought to preempt—but he could not completely prevent President Obama from recalling his one foreign policy achievement: the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Instead of "spiking the football," as the Democrats did at their National Convention in Charlotte, bragging about Bin Laden's demise to virtually the point of chest thumping, the President chose to "personalize" the result: recalling a visit with a fourteen year old named Peyton, who lost her father ten years earlier on 9/11, and how she told him that getting bin Laden finally brought her "closure."
3. ROMNEY'S BEST MOMENT
The challenger eliminated questions from his presentation last night, opting instead for pointed criticisms of the incumbent and his record. When President Obama bristled at what Romney called the "Apology Tour," the Governor stood his rhetorical ground:
"...Mr. President, the reason I call it an 'Apology Tour' is because you went to the Middle East, and you flew to Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, and to Turkey, and to Iraq.
And by the way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region, but you went to to the other nations.
And by the way, they noticed that you skipped Israel. And then in those nations, and on Arabic TV, you said that America had been dismissive and derisive. You said that on occasion America had dictated to other nations.
Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators."
4. PROBLEMATIC PRESIDENTIAL PETULANCE
Speaking of dismissive and derisive, the Commander-in-chief could not resist the temptation to become the "Lecturer-in-chief" when Governor Romney criticized looming cuts in defense spending:
"...I think Governor Romney maybe hasn't spent enough time looking at how our military works.
You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military has changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines."
There's no doubt that the President's most rabid supporters find those comments "feisty," but to undecided voters, especially women, they come off as "snarky," and certainly not "Presidential."
5. ROMNEY'S REMINDER
Governor Romney got the last word last night, and he used his closing remarks to not only remind viewers of the woeful Obama Record, but also to emphasize his "bipartisan approach" to governing—another appeal to undecided and independent voters:
"There are two very different paths the country can take. One is a path represented by the President, which at the end of four years would mean we'd have $20 Trillion in debt, heading towards Greece. I'll get us on a path to a balanced budget.
President's path will mean declining take-home pay. I want to make sure that take-home pay turns around and starts to grow.
The President's path means 20 million people out of work, struggling for a good job. I'll get people back to work with 12 million new jobs.
...We're going to have to have a President who can work across the aisle. I was in a state where my legislature was 87 percent Democrat...Washington is broken. I know what it takes to get this country back and will work with good Democrats and good Republicans to do just that."
Nearly a half-century ago, Arizona's Barry Goldwater issued his warning against moderation, and lost to Lyndon Johnson in a landslide. Over thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan countered criticism that he was too conservative by asking voters if they were better off during the Presidency of Jimmy Carter, and that resulted in a decisive win for the Californian. In two weeks' time, Mitt Romney will find out if his "modified Reagan approach" will bring similar success.
As always, the real "final word" will belong to the voters.