The third and final debate between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney included a few memorable lines — Mr. Romney's promise that in his administration, Russian President Vladimir Putin would be on the receiving end of "more backbone," and Mr. Obama's "horses and bayonets" to describe his opponent's outdated ideas about the size of the military. But perhaps the most trenchant remark was the president's summary of Mr. Romney's approach to foreign policy: "You'd do the same things we did, but you'd say them louder, and somehow that that would make a difference."
Indeed, although Mr. Romney continued in his effort to paint the president's foreign policy as "unraveling," when push came to shove, on issue after issue, he conceded that he agreed with what the Obama administration is doing. He agreed with the intervention in Libya. He would not engage militarily in the Syrian civil war. He would get the troops out of Afghanistan in 2014. He views military action against Iran as a last resort and thinks the sanctions against that country are effective. He, too, would stand by Israel militarily if it is attacked. He agreed that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak needed to go. He does not agree with "a lot of people" who would "just brush our hands and walk away" from Pakistan — and made sure to clarify that Mr. Obama is not one of those people. It was as if his strategy was to spend the debate parroting the president's foreign policy while claiming that his ideas were different, but after a while he gave up even that pretense of disagreement.
What was most striking about this debate was not the degree to which the candidates differed on issues, whether Mr. Romney passed a minimum bar of foreign policy competence or whether Mr. Obama continued his return to assertiveness after the first debate. It was the vast array of issues that, after six hours of talk between Messrs. Romney, Obama and their running mates, were mentioned barely if at all.
Just in the realm of foreign policy, it was striking that the conversation included no discussion whatsoever of Europe's financial crisis and what that means for America's economy and for the ability of the nations on that continent to cooperate with the United States on issue of mutual importance. Decisions about how strongly the European Union will hold together and how willing the continent's richer states will be to bail out its more indebted nations will have huge consequences for the next president.
None of the debates included discussion about climate change, perhaps the biggest existential threat to the planet and one that will require deft diplomacy by an American president to address — if, that is, the next president doesn't have his head in the sand about the science of global warming. As a related issue, the candidates did not discuss at all the implications of rising standards of living in rapidly developing economies like Brazil, India and South Africa. China came into the discussion only in the context of how protectionist our trade policies should be, not in the context of the global competition for resources or the spewing of carbon into the atmosphere. Brewing tensions between China and Japan went unmentioned altogether, as did any discussion of China's record on human rights.
Mr. Romney mentioned the opportunities for trade in Latin America, but there was no discussion of the raging drug war in Mexico and its implications for cross-border violence and American efforts to stem the spread of narcotics into this country. There was, for that matter, no discussion of the wisdom of treating drug addiction as a criminal justice issue rather than a medical one. And beyond some references to the federal version of the Dream Act and some shots by Mr. Obama about Mr. Romney's embrace during the Republican primaries of the notion of "self deportation," there was little discussion of how to fix the nation's broken immigration policies and what to do with the 12 million illegal immigrants who are already here.
The two candidates spent more time on domestic issues, but they still didn't discuss how the nation should respond to the foreclosure crisis. They didn't talk about campaign finance laws in the age of super PACs, gay marriage or the likelihood that the next president could tip the balance of the Supreme Court, with decisive consequences for abortion rights, among other things.
What we need, evidently, is a fourth debate. Only this time, perhaps the moderator should be given the power to cut off the candidates' microphones when they stop answering the questions that have been posed and start reciting talking points from the campaign trail. Voters have a big choice to make in this election, and by all accounts they are closely divided. Too bad all they'll get in the next two weeks are pep rallies and attack ads.