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.
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.
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.
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.