Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Debate coach: Romney walked into 'bayonets' line

By Todd Graham, Special to CNN
October 23, 2012 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Todd Graham: Candidates had many areas of agreement in third presidential debate
  • He says agreeing is a good strategy to build credibility in debate; Romney missed chance
  • When Romney was asked about paying for $2 trillion in military spending, he dodged, he says
  • Graham: It let Obama deliver a line that would stick; made Romney seem naive on spending

Editor's note: Todd Graham is the director of debate at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. He has coached his teams to national championships and has been honored with the Ross K. Smith national debate coach of the year award. Graham has analyzed presidential debates for five elections.

(CNN) -- There were many areas of agreement on past policies Monday night in the presidential debate. The problem for Mitt Romney was with the one major disagreement on future foreign policy.

I've always taught my debate students that in any argument, whether at home, at the office, or in public debates, it's important to find areas of agreement.

There are two reasons for this. The first is so that you build up your credibility for when you need it on more important issues. In a debate, if you've already agreed with your opponent on some topics, the audience is more likely to believe you when you finally disagree. And the second reason for agreement is that it lets you pick your battles. Explicitly agreeing with your opponent is a terrific and underused debating strategy that lets you succeed when arguing for bigger, more significant issues.

Opinion: Obama in command; Romney plays it safe

President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney depart the stage after the debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, on Monday, October 22. The third and final presidential debate focused on foreign policy. See the best photos from the second presidential debate. President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney depart the stage after the debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, on Monday, October 22. The third and final presidential debate focused on foreign policy. See the best photos from the second presidential debate.
The final presidential debate
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: The final presidential debate Photos: The final presidential debate
Best moments from the final debate

It was 40 minutes into the foreign policy debate before I heard an area of disagreement on future foreign policy direction. The problem was that Romney had not actually built up his credibility by agreeing with President Obama on any specific future policies. It was painfully obvious. In failing to openly agree when possible, Romney lacked the credibility needed when that first big disagreement came. And when he finally did disagree? Best said by the Holy Grail Knight in the Indiana Jones movie: "He chose -- poorly."

The question was posed to Romney on how he would pay for his proposed $2 trillion increase in military spending, and he flat out didn't answer it. He was busy finishing his previous answer. So by the time it was the president's turn, Obama actually said, "You should have answered the question."

Obama then asserted that the United States spends more on its military than the next 10 countries combined. That's a great attention grabber. By the time Romney finally answered, he simply said we needed a stronger military, and the Navy needs more ships because it has fewer ships than it did in 1916.

But Obama countered with the most memorable line of the night. "We also have fewer horses and bayonets." Obama's debating point was that the nature of our military has changed. He continued by saying that the U.S. has things like submarines and aircraft carriers that should suffice, and reminded viewers that the nation needed to study what its threats are and put money into things like cybersecurity and space. Obama said that the military neither wants nor has asked for this extra $2 trillion.

Opinion: Romney endorses Obama's national security policies

This was terrible for Romney for three reasons. First, it was the original area of real disagreement, and Romney couldn't afford to be bested. Second, no matter what he may actually know, Romney looked like a neophyte when it comes to military spending, as though he were repeating old Republican talking points. Viewers could be left unsure whether he knew what century this is.

And finally, it's two freaking trillion dollars! They both talked about the budget deficit and the need to balance the budget, and over three debates, this -- $2 trillion on military spending -- was the biggest difference on offer. Axing Big Bird would net a President Romney next to nothing in savings, but adding $2 trillion to defense sounded excessive, especially if it's true that the U.S. already spends more than the next 10 countries combined. Point Obama.

I pored over my notes. The candidates had some other differences on future policies, such as who could be a better BFF to Israel (arguably, with his relationships in Israel, Romney might be, but he showed no actual specifics on how his policies would differ from Obama's) and what represents the greatest threat to America (Obama said terrorism, with some China economic arguments, while Romney said a nuclear Iran; but each man failed in Monday night's debate to show why this difference was important). But the topic I couldn't forget was defense spending.

Obama also had a theme in the debate, and he played it more often than the melody in Ravel's "Bolero." The president continually said that Romney sends mixed messages and that he's all over the map. Obama smartly tied this to specific comments from Romney's past (examples were Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Libya) and used Romney's own words against him.

Opinion: Was Obama too relentless with Romney?

Obama repeatedly chided him, saying that Romney needs to be clear in what he says and what he means, while reminding us that in a president, we need steady and thoughtful leadership. This was the president's best debate when referring to Romney's ever-changing positions, since he actually tied it to important foreign policy issues and the real challenge of being a commander in chief.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Todd Graham.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT