Neocon Romney Backers Make Peace With 'Moderate Mitt's' Final Presidential Debate

Republican Presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gestures while speaking to supporters during a rally
Republican Presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gestures while speaking to supporters during a rally, Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012, in Las Vegas. Fresh off the presidential debate in Florida, Romney and running mate Paul Ryan were making their first joint appearance in Nevada before heading to another campaign stop in Denver. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

If some of Mitt Romney's more hawkish supporters tweeted themselves into a tizzy over his kinder and gentler performance in Monday's foreign policy debate, many of his neoconservative kitchen cabinet members were back on the offensive against President Barack Obama the morning after.

As the final face-off before Election Day drew to a close with apparently little daylight between the candidates on issues, and with Romney retreating from his previous hardline rhetoric, conservatives vented online.

"I am glad to know that Mitt agrees with Obama so much. No, really. Why vote?" Glenn Beck tweeted near the end of the debate.

Michelle Malkin asked "Why hasn't Romney gone after Obama for Gitmo jihadist coddling, delaying justice for American victims' families?"

"Romney was so determined to avoid sounding like George W. Bush that he spent much of the night sounding like Barack Obama," wrote Stephen Hayes in the The Weekly Standard . "The two men agreed on so many issues -– from Syria to drones, from leaving Afghanistan in 2014 to avoiding wars like Iraq –- that voters who tuned in seeking a contrast had only a few brief moments to understand the differences between them."

Eliot Cohen, a neocon Romney adviser who helped write an early foreign policy white paper for the campaign, defended his candidate's seemingly similar stances to Obama's in an email to The Huffington Post.

"In the very broadest outlines, there is a lot of continuity in American foreign policy -- both the president and the governor support NATO, for example," Cohen said. "But there is a world of difference in the details, approach, and leadership style." He said Obama "isn't very credible to the Iranians, which is why they thought they could get away with trying to assassinate the Saudi ambassador" in Washington.

David Frum, former White House speechwriter for George W. Bush, tallied the issues where Romney agreed with Obama, concluding, "Bottom Line: Romney did well. My friends who support Romney for hawkish reasons … maybe not so well."

Indeed, the "moderate Mitt" that Obama has attributed to "Romnesia" appeared on full display Monday evening, much to the chagrin of many on his foreign policy advisory team. No fewer than 17 of Romney's 24 special advisers on foreign policy are Bush-Cheney administration veterans and neoconservatives who have spent the last four years working to return from the policy wilderness.

Among them is the former ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton.

"I'd make sure that [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is indicted under the Genocide Convention. His words amount to genocide incitation," Romney said in a reference to the "World Court." The more likely venue would be the International Criminal Court, which prosecutes genocide and which Bolton has called “one of the world’s most illegitimate multilateral institutions."

"I'm sure that John Bolton was wanting to throw himself out of the window when he watched this debate," said Newsweek/Daily Beast editor Tina Brown of the moment Romney parted ways with his neocon adviser by endorsing the international criminal justice system.

Rush Limbaugh agreed, to a point. "Bolton, I'm sure, is one of these guys that was devastated last night watching Romney. You know, he wants Obama's ideology attacked. So she's right about that. Bolton probably was wanting to throw himself out the window," he said on his radio show, "but Romney came across plausible, plausible. He did not disqualify himself."

Daniel Larison at the American Conservative also offered a mixed review: "Romney delivered a lot of incoherent answers, but that probably won’t hurt him with most viewers."

If Romney got dinged in the second debate for appearing dismissive of a sitting president, this time some on the right said it was Obama who showed disrespect.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who four years ago debated Obama, said the president took "cheap shots" at Romney. “I think you should treat your opponent with some respect, especially if you’re president of the United States. And he certainly didn’t.”

Over at Breitbart.com, one headline read: "Romney Wins, By a Bayonet." Writer Joel Pollak concluded that Obama "went overboard in some of his criticisms of Romney, not only by striking a less presidential posture but by relying on factual assertions that were bound to be proven false afterwards."

He offered as an example Obama's now viral bayonet jab. "When Romney criticized looming defense cuts ... Obama countered by expressing contempt for Romney's alleged ignorance about the military, saying that it was as outdated as military bayonets. The problem? The military still uses bayonets."

Former Pentagon comptroller Dov Zakehim, a senior Romney adviser, told HuffPost that Obama came off as "overly aggressive" and joined the right-wing posse trampling on the "horses and bayonets” zinger about the modern Navy. That "might have worked as a catchy soundbite," he said in an email, but "it did not account for the fact that we cannot maintain both our presence in the Middle East and the 'pivot' that he desires with the force levels that his budgets project."

Zakheim also defended Romney by attacking Obama's oft-stated claim that Pentagon leaders support his proposed budget cuts. "While accurate," Zakheim said, they "skirted around the fact that the military always 'salutes smartly' once the civilian leadership determines budget levels; that is what civilian control is all about."

William Kristol of the Weekly Standard, who has been lukewarm toward Romney's candidacy, weighed in mid-debate that Romney was" more than holding his own" against Obama.

"Only two other challengers have done as well debating foreign policy with an incumbent president -- Ronald Reagan against Jimmy Carter in 1980 and, to a lesser degree, Bill Clinton against George H.W. Bush in 1992," he wrote. "Romney is now on track to becoming the third challenger to win in the last 32 years -- and the first in 80 years to defeat an incumbent who didn't have a primary challenge. Tonight, Romney seems as fully capable as -- probably more capable than -- Barack Obama of being the next president."



Presidential Debate: The Final Showdown