All in all, the debate was a bit of a head-scratcher -- at least for those of us who'd like to think that presidential candidates tell the truth more often than they lie. How are we supposed to decide who to vote for, when everyone just wants world peace?
History, however, suggests that this is a false dilemma. True, the candidates' words -- especially their campaign season words -- correlate only poorly with their policies once in office. But there does seem to be a strong correlation between personnel and policy. Identify their advisers and their staff, and you'll get a pretty good sense of the kinds of policies you'll get.
We saw this in the Bush years: George W. Bush sounded reasonably moderate during the 2000 election. He eschewed nation-building and promised a more humble foreign policy, and many liberals convinced themselves that there wasn't really much foreign policy difference between Bush and Gore. But once in office, Bush's campaign pledges fell by the wayside, and his foreign policies closely matched the neo-conservative blueprints of key aides like Dick Cheney, John Bolton, Paul Wolfowitz, and Donald Rumsfeld.
We've seen it with Obama, too: He was a left-liberal presidential candidate in 2008, but as soon as he got into office, he surrounded himself with centrists and political hatchet men. His supporters on the left spent a year or two wringing their hands and worrying that these misguided staff choices (Hillary Clinton! Rahm Emmanuel! Larry Summers!) would interfere with the poor president's ability to carry out his visionary left-liberal agenda. After a certain point, however, the truth began to sink in: Obama didn't actually have a left-liberal agenda. He was a centrist, and that's why he appointed centrists to his inner circle. Personnel decisions are policy decisions, and Obama's policies have, for the most part, been as centrist as the majority of his political appointments.
So if we want to predict the foreign policy of a Romney White House, we'd probably do better to look at his friends and advisors than listen to his words. And it ain't a pretty sight: Mitt Romney's inner circle looks an awful lot like George W. Bush's inner circle, mostly because they're made up of the exact same guys. John Bolton? Check: a major Romney campaign trail surrogate. Dick Cheney? Check: He's hosting fundraisers for Romney, who praises him as a "person of wisdom and judgment." Then there's Robert Kagan, a founder of the neo-con Project for a New American Century; Dan Senor, former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq; Eliot Cohen, a former Condoleezza Rice senior staffer; Eric Edelman, former Cheney aide and Doug Feith's successor as undersecretary of defense for policy...the list of influential Bush-era neo-cons goes on and on. Of the 24 people listed as foreign policy advisers on the Romney web site, 17 worked for George W. Bush's administration.
This, at the end of the day, is the primary reason to hope that Obama wins the election on November 6. He's far from perfect, and his foreign policy team is far from perfect, but as I noted earlier, they've managed to avoid any major national security catastrophes. But Romney's team? These are the guys who brought us torture, black sites, damaged alliances, open sneering at international institutions, and two bloody, financially ruinous wars. And in this uncertain world, you can be sure of one thing: If Mitt Romney wins, they'll do their best to bring it all back.