By Kathleen Parker
ORLANDO, Fla. — Forget “horses and bayonets.” The most important word uttered during the third presidential debate was “peace.”
Mitt Romney, the un-bellicose, used it several times to set the tone for what his foreign policy would be. Anyone who was expecting saber-rattling and bring-it-on rhetoric was disappointed.
This may include some Republicans who had hoped to witness another round on the attack in Benghazi and the Obama administration’s mixed messages in the aftermath, but Romney chose not to go there. It would have been a distraction and created friction that ultimately would have undermined the sense Romney was trying to convey — that he picks his battles carefully.
The real point of Romney’s rendition of commander in chief was to reveal himself as the stalwart of America’s power to promote peace and freedom through strength, character and an unyielding defense of American principles.
Without ever using the word, he was laying out a blueprint of American exceptionalism. Romney reiterated his belief that the United States has a vital role in leading the world, in providing succor to nations trying to gain a toehold in democracy, in helping those who would overthrow oppressive governments.
He got his best shot at Barack Obama when he quoted the president’s comments during what Romney characterized as an “apology” tour in 2009, in which Obama conceded that the United States has at times “dictated” to other nations and been “dismissive” and “derisive.”
“We don’t dictate to nations,” Romney said. “We free nations from dictators.”
Obama seized on Romney’s use of the word “apology” and noted that every fact-checker and reporter who had looked into it said it wasn’t true.
Interestingly, where Romney declined to use “exceptionalism,” a belief in which Obama does not share, Obama inserted a different term: “America remains the one indispensable nation,” he said. This has a nice ring to it. How could the world do without an America? We may yet find out.
Obama may have chosen this phrase to make up for past statements that were less than ringing endorsements of America’s special place in defense of human liberty. When asked once whether he thought America was exceptional, he said he supposed it was in the same way other countries think they’re exceptional.
“Peace” was the word Romney seemed to like best, followed closely by “tumult,” which is a strange Romney-esque word that he used five times. He used “peace” 12 times (Obama none), especially in the context of Middle East policy, and managed to tie our mission of peace to the economy:
“Our purpose is to make sure the world is more — is peaceful. We want a peaceful planet. We want people to be able to enjoy their lives and know they’re going to have a bright and prosperous future and not be at war. That’s our purpose. And the mantle of — of leadership for promoting the principles of peace has fallen to America. We didn’t ask for it, but it’s an honor that we have it.
“But for us to be able to promote those principles of peace requires us to be strong, and that begins with a strong economy here at home, and unfortunately, the economy is not stronger.”
Both candidates seemed more at home on the domestic front and spent too much time on small details that have been covered previously. However, focus groups indicated approval each time Obama brought the conversation back to nation-building at home.
The low point of the evening, though most certainly celebrated by Obama supporters, was when the president sarcastically schooled his opponent on the need, or lack thereof, for Navy ships.
Romney was asserting his plan to rebuild the Navy, which he said (incorrectly) is smaller than at any time since 1917. (According to FactCheck.org, there are slightly more ships now than at the low point under President George W. Bush.)
Rather than correct Romney’s figures, Obama treated him like a child.
“Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”
The president got some laughs, but probably no new votes. Snark is a winning trait on Twitter, but not so much in the Oval Office. The higher road belonged to Romney, who succeeded in his mission, which was to remind Americans that their nation is more than indispensable. It is exceptional — and they need a president who believes it.
Kathleen Parker is a Washington Post columnist. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.