It was not supposed to be this way. Foreign policy was not supposed to matter in this election. Not only were the American people primarily concerned about their economic futures, but the president of the United States was, not too long ago, seen as having such a solid foreign-policy record that it seemed implausible Republicans could do much damage to him on that front. After all, the president was the hero who gave the order that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden.
GM was alive. Bin Laden was dead. Game over. It all seemed so simple.
But somewhere en route to Monday night's foreign-policy debate, the conventional wisdom landed squarely on its behind. Three factors drove this unceremonious upending of pundit expectations. (Which included my own. See here for my own timely "Dewey Defeats Truman" assertion that this race was over weeks ago. It was published so close to the instant that it was no longer true that physicists have concluded the only way to produce something with a shorter half-life would require use of the linear accelerator at CERN in Switzerland.)
One reason the conventional wisdom became unstuck was the president's lackluster performance in the first debate. Had Obama won the debate easily, given his lead in the polls at the time, GOP leaders might have started to distance themselves from their nominee, focus on House and Senate races, and start planning long romantic dinners with Marco Rubio or potentially even longer ones with Chris Christie with an eye to 2016. And the two remaining debates -- including the foreign-policy debate -- would have mattered less.
Another reason foreign policy and Monday's debate came to matter more was that the conventional wisdom about foreign policy not mattering in debates is one of the great indefensible canards of cable TV-grade political analysis. Forget what the polls say: Foreign policy has been centrally important to almost every election of the past 40 years in the United States. See Vietnam, Ford's Poland gaffe, the Iran hostage crisis, the centrality of Cold War victory to Reagan's "Morning in America," the end of the Cold War, the "great sucking sound," the "War on Terror," and getting out of Iraq as examples.
But the biggest reason Monday's debate is going to matter is that over the past few weeks, the tide of international events has turned against the president. At first, it seemed Mitt Romney would assist Obama in bucking that tide. Late in the summer, his Global Gaffe Tour distracted from bad news on Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, the international economy, and elsewhere. When the attack in Benghazi first took place, Romney stepped on it with an ill-considered, badly timed critique that came out roughly as America was learning that its envoy to Libya and three others had been murdered. Had Romney simply remained silent, Benghazi would have been a blot on the president's record.
But turnabout is fair play. And the Obama administration returned the favor to Romney by mishandling the communications surrounding the Benghazi incident in such a way that it kept it alive. Their decision to stick to the story that the deaths resulted from protests associated with the offensive anti-Muslim video that circulated on YouTube and provoked protests elsewhere -- even after compelling evidence emerged that the attacks were anticipated and had nothing to do with the video -- kept the story alive. This opened the door to further scrutiny of embassy security or rather, the lack thereof. But it also did something much more damaging. It re-opened the issue of national security competence that the Obama administration thought was closed.