Heritage Experts Analyze Final Presidential Debate

article top
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney answers a question as President Barack Obama listens during the third presidential debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, October 22, 2012.

Last night’s debate between President Obama and Governor Romney was supposed to focus on foreign policy. It turned into a wide-ranging conversation on everything from the Middle East to American teachers.

Heritage Foundation experts were live blogging analysis throughout the night. Below are some highlights from their reactions.


A Heavy Focus on the Middle East

Both men agreed that the Middle East was changing quickly, but said little about the new face of terrorism. Governor Romney charged that events in Libya, Syria, and Egypt demonstrated that the Obama Administration’s policies were unraveling and leaving the region without adequate American leadership. President Obama defended his policies but spent more time attacking Romney’s policies, which he criticized as “all over the map.”

Obama repeatedly plugged the killing of Osama bin Laden and ending the war in Iraq. But he said little about how al-Qaeda has regrouped and grown stronger since those events. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, particularly special operations forces, greatly reduced the pressure on al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and has allowed it to make a comeback. In July, AQI felt strong enough to publicly threaten an attack on the U.S. homeland.

The al-Qaeda franchise in Yemen also has launched several failed attacks on the homeland. Al-Qaeda also has seized large swaths of northern Mali using some of the weapons that it and its allies seized from Libya after the fall of Muammar Qadhafi. And the September 11 Benghazi terrorist attack, which was perpetrated by al-Qaeda sympathizers, underscored the continuing appeal of al-Qaeda’s extremist ideology.

Although Osama bin Laden is dead, al-Qaeda clearly is very much alive.

See A Counterterrorism Strategy for the “Next Wave”

– James Phillips, Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs

Cutting the Defense Budget

During the debate, President Obama asserted that his budget proposal maintains defense at about current levels. This is simply untrue. Here are the numbers from his Office of Management and Budget from this year’s budget request. In fiscal year 2010, defense spending was $721.3 billion in budget authority. Under the President’s proposal, defense spending will fall to $566.3 billion in fiscal year 2014.

This is a 21 percent reduction in just four years. Further, this does not account for the negative effects of inflation on the defense budget. Finally, the President’s budget proposal does not calculate the impact of automatic defense spending reductions in the Budget Control Act of 2011. These automatic spending cuts to defense will amount to more than $500 billion over nine years. While the House of Representatives has adopted a measure to defer these automatic cuts to defense by applying the necessary spending reductions to areas outside defense, President Obama’s White House threatened a veto in response to this measure.

President Obama wants the American people to believe that Governor Romney is proposing to increase the defense budget by $2 trillion. He calculates this by assuming that his defense spending reductions already apply, and therefore serve as the basis for comparisons. In reality, Governor Romney is proposing not to let President Obama’s defense budget reduction proposal to take place.

America’s military is the single most valuable contributor to increasing the likelihood of a peaceful and prosperous world. Large-scale reductions in the defense budget, therefore, put the prospects of a peaceful and prosperous world further out of reach.

– Baker Spring, F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy

The Navy and Number of Ships Needed

President Obama said:

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’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.

While the types of ships of today are different from those prior to World War I, there are certain laws of physics that have not changed. And one of those is that, no matter how much cyber capability or space capability may exist, a ship can still be only in one place at any one time. Thus, whether it is battleships or aircraft carriers, whether it is nuclear-powered submarines or biplanes, each system can only be in one place at any given time. And a shortfall of naval vessels, such as now exists, means that there will be times and places where there will be fewer ships than U.S. Navy analysts and officers deem appropriate and necessary.

The idea that better cyber capabilities can substitute for physical capabilities constitutes a fundamental misunderstanding of how military forces operate. Of course, it hasn’t been helped by the dismissive attitude assumed by President Obama’s first Secretary of Defense about how the U.S. had excessive numbers of aircraft carriers, as though the proper state of American security is to have parity with potential foes, rather than clear superiority.

– Dean Cheng, Research Fellow, Asian Studies Center

Defense Readiness Is Key to America’s Role in the World

The weakness of America’s economy is hurting America. The added self-inflicted wound of the cuts directed by the sequestration provision of the Budget Control Act will damage the readiness of the nation even further. When America’s allies see the leader of the free world as receding and leading from behind, they worry and pull back from operations that support U.S. interests.

When both candidates agree that America has a responsibility to lead, the conditions to ensure that leadership must be set and protected. To do that, sequestration must be turned off and the assault on readiness ended. The so-called $2 trillion that Obama says is “not asked for by the generals” is exactly what nearly every expert says America needs to have solid defense (4 percent of GDP). America’s leadership in foreign affairs must be reinvigorated, and we must provide all the tools needed by diplomats and intelligence professionals.

The argument that the present defense budgetary situation is based on strategy and exactly what the uniformed leaders have asked for is a little disingenuous. The cuts made in the last four years have been dollars-based, with the defense officials like Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta claiming further “cuts will be a disaster.” This must be changed.

– Steven Bucci, PhD, Senior Research Fellow for Defense and Homeland Security 

Jobs on the Home Front

Obama talked of turning our attention to home, including bringing our veterans home. But there are no jobs for them at home, with unemployment hovering stubbornly around 8 percent and job creation well below what is needed to grow the economy. Building up our roads and bridges won’t create new jobs. America’s workers need more than the same failed stimulus policies to grow the economy. Rather, the President needs to make sure Taxmageddon does not occur and get control of the budget.

– Alison Fraser, Director, Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

Federal Pay for Education Employees Won’t Create Jobs

President Obama accused Governor Romney of believing that class size “doesn’t make a difference” and that hiring teachers won’t create jobs.

Actually, class size, within reasonable bounds, does not impact student achievement. The National Center for Education Statistics, for example, has tracked the national student-teacher ratio over time. Today, nationally, the student-teacher ratio is just 15.2: 1. The student-teacher ratio has declined 29 percent since 1970 and by more than 40 percent since 1950. But despite these declines, academic achievement has seen little to no improvement, graduation rates have been stagnant, and achievement gaps persist.

Second, spending more taxpayer dollars on federal programs to hire education employees (President Obama proposes $25 billion to do just that) won’t create jobs. It will simply represent another large transfer of wealth from taxpayers to public education employees, half of whom are not teachers.

While enrollment in America’s public schools has not quite doubled since 1950, staff positions (both instructional and administrative) increased by 377 percent between 1950 and 2010 (a nearly five-fold increase). From 1970 to 2010, enrollment in the nation’s public schools increased just 7.8 percent; over the same time period, education staff increased 84 percent.

Again, such increases have failed to move the needle on student achievement. The only beneficiaries of new federal programs and spending have been the education unions.

– Lindsey Burke, Will Skillman Fellow in Education

The U.S. Place in the World

The discussion of the U.S.’s place in the world in last night’s debate was unsatisfactory. To the extent that it focused directly on that subject, both Obama and Romney sought to reduce it to a question of defense spending, which the President was eager to cut. That is the wrong approach; much better is to assess what the U.S. needs to carry out its responsibilities and budget accordingly. But both men largely fought shy of presenting any larger vision of the U.S.’s role in the world, and sought to focus their remarks on domestic policy. Governor Romney led off with the U.S. need to defend freedom, promote the principles on which it was founded, and to support its allies, but after that the discussion diverged into job creation, a half-hearted defense by the President of his renewable energy policies, and a lengthy wrangle about education policy.

It is perfectly fair to argue that the U.S. cannot be strong abroad unless it is strong at home. In fact, this is one of the subjects that we hoped this debate would focus on. But economic strength needs to be coupled to a broader understanding of the U.S.’s vital national interests in the world, to an understanding of the merits and limits of diplomacy, and—ultimately—to a vision, informed by the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, of the purpose and processes of U.S. foreign policy. After Governor Romney’s opening, these vital subjects disappeared from the debate. That reflects, perhaps, the sentiment of both sides that the election will not be won on foreign policy.

– Ted R. Bromund, PhD, Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations