Schram: The winner of the first 'virtual' presidential debate is ...

2012-09-25T16:20:00Z Schram: The winner of the first 'virtual' presidential debate is ...MARTIN SCHRAM/Scripps Howard News Service Santa Maria Times
September 25, 2012 4:20 pm  • 

Eight days earlier than scheduled, on the morning of September 25, America's voters were treated to the first debate of the 2012 presidential campaign.

It was a virtual foreign policy debate. And when it was over, there was no doubt who won.

President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney were both in New York City Tuesday for what evolved into a virtual exchange featuring crisscrossing motorcades. Romney went first.

Just after 9 a.m. EDT, Romney strode onstage at a midtown Manhattan hotel and addressed former President Bill Clinton's Global Initiative. Romney's topic was expansive -- the linkage of private enterprise and global aid -- and his opening remarks were impressive.

"Free enterprise can do more than help us financially; it can make us better people," Romney said. He extolled the virtues of "coupling aid with trade."

It didn't matter that Romney's message wasn't really original or new. What we need most these days are more leaders who are willing to recognize, embrace and enact worthy positive ideas. And Romney gave us that.

What we need least these days are leaders who are willing to use global crises to pander, take cheap shots at adversaries and distort reality. And Romney's problem was that's just what he had done the week before, when he used as an attack on Obama the murder of America's extraordinary ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans in Benghazi, and the burning of the U.S. embassy flag in Cairo by a crowd protesting a warped anti-Muslim video.

Even fellow Republicans condemned his attack. And Romney's poor judgment must be considered along with his positive Tuesday trade and aid comments.

No sooner had Romney exited the Clinton forum than Obama strode onto another stage just a few blocks away to address the United Nations General Assembly. To a nation of television viewers it seemed like part two of a virtual debate.

On major occasions such as a State of the Union, Obama has sometimes disappointed his truest believers with speeches that seemed a bit underwhelming. But his Tuesday morning address to the U.N. was a tour de force. He offered the world a high-minded vision of U.S. policy objectives and a tough-minded assessment of global policy crises -- all wrapped in a unifying conceptual framework.

"I would like to begin by telling you about a young man named Chris Stevens," he began simply. And as Obama told the story of this exemplary ambassador who was just murdered in the city he helped save, for all the Libyan people he loved to walk among, he was telling the world about the best of the United States of America. He talked of what freedom of speech means in this era when "anyone with a cell phone can send offensive videos around the world with a click of a button."

Obama warned the world about a nuclear Iran: "Make no mistake: a nuclear armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained." And of Iran's support of terrorists. But then he wrapped up the mission of all those in his U.N. audience with the legacy of America's slain ambassador.

"Today, we must affirm that our future will be determined by people like Chris Stevens, and not by his killers," Obama said. "Today, we must declare that this violence and intolerance has no place among our United Nations."

If you were listening as a member of the U.N. General Assembly, you came away with a clearer vision of what you must do to make this planet safer.

If you were listening as an ordinary American watching a televised virtual debate and still uncertain how you will vote, then you undoubtedly came away thinking one of two things:

1. That speech was absolutely Clintonian! (If you are a Democrat.)

2. That speech was absolutely Reaganesque! (If you are a Republican.)

Either way, you felt a bit more proud to be an American. And a lot more proud of the face of America, as presented by Obama, for all the world to see.

Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at

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