The third and final Presidential debate of 2012 takes place tonight at 9pm. The format is that of the first debate with Bob Schieffer replacing Jim Lehrer. The topic is foreign policy. Based on an aggregation of the polls the race is a dead heat with 15 days until November 6. The winner tonight could very well determine which man will be what was once called without irony The Leader of the Free World.
Libya, Benghazi, Afghanistan and, of course, Iran's obvious efforts to produce nuclear weaponry will all be addressed. Also on the agenda will be military budgets and the function and creation of what seems to be a drone army the U.S. is using to hunt terrorists. While these are critical to our long-term national security they are also thorny, complicated matters on which the two men share many of the same views. America doesn't want a debate focused on the nuances of precisely what "Leave Afghanistan in/ by/ around 2014" might mean and both candidates know it. At some point tonight's battle will return to trade and that means China.
If the country is too economically weak to take care of itself military might is a luxury. If we have jobs we are unstoppable. The perception is that our jobs have been "outsourced to China." Tonight Mitt Romney and President Obama will each try to convince voters that they are they have a plan to bring those jobs home.
Getting tough on China
Robert O'Brien a foreign policy adviser to the Romney campaign told Breakout last March that China was pushing the U.S. around like a tourist. In our recent conversation he reiterated that point, arguing Chinese currency manipulation, copyright policy and outright design theft from our aerospace and defense industries were putting the U.S. at a disadvantage and accelerating the rate at which China is gaining on the U.S. economically.
"They've had a long period where they haven't played by the rules," O'Brien says, adding, "If they want access to our markets, if they want to trade with us they've got to do it fairly." What fairly and tough mean are also subject to significant interpretation. The truth is China needs the U.S. as much as we need them. Both nations will fight fiercely for the edge within that relationship but the nations need one another and they know it.
All Foreign Policy is Domestic
Middle Class jobs "want" to come back to the U.S. To a certain extent they already are. Airbus, Honda (HMC), Boeing (BA) and Ford (F) are all building and expanding plants in the U.S. and American workers are educated and hungry. The issue has been the dramatically lower cost of foreign labor. Chinese scandals and the growth of their middle class are raising the cost of doing business abroad. The job of the next President is driving down the cost of doing business in America, not through driving down salaries but by facilitating the free market.
O'Brien says Romney's energy policy will create jobs not only directly through the use and maintenance of the equipment but indirectly by lowering and stabilizing the energy cost of running factories. Natural gas in particular is an underutilized asset. America is the "Saudi Arabia" of natural gas in terms of how much there is underground. Romney wants to limit regulations on natural gas production for use at home (Nat gas is notoriously difficult to transport). We've heard the domestic-energy-as-foreign policy conversation from both men before and we'll hear it again tonight.
The President will talk up his foreign policy triumphs this evening while Romney attacks him on the same. Most viewers already know which side they're going to take when it comes to foreign policy. The critical thing to remember is that nothing operates in a vacuum. If it happens overseas it impacts us here both in security and our pocketbooks.
May the best man win.