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Presidential debate: Romney and Obama bring it back home (+video)

The final presidential debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama underscored that their most important foreign policy differences have less to do with events on distant shores than priorities at home.

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It is possible, however, to imagine what a truly robust foreign policy debate might have sounded like last night had either or both candidates set out specific bold agendas to address security, environmental, and economic questions as braided issues.

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Obama, for example, might have proposed doubling gas prices – to rates resembling what much of the rest of the world pays at the pump – and using a few of those extra dollars per gallon to address both climate change and jobs creation through investment in green energy research and development.

Romney could have called for making private sector investments in math and science education a mandatory condition of new concessions for oil and gas exploration on federal lands. That effort would aim to create jobs and promote both energy independence and future competitiveness at the same time.

Each candidate has picked apart the other’s economic plan in previous debates. Neither, however, has linked his approach with a kind of Singapore-style economic security question: What kind of workforce will the United States need in 25 years to remain competitive, and how do we create it?

In talking about the role of the United States in the world, Obama said: “America remains the one indispensable nation.” His opponent echoed that point. “The mantle of leadership for the – promoting the principles of peace has fallen to America. We didn’t ask for it. But it’s an honor that we have it.”

Both are right. The world largely looks to the US as either a catalyst or impediment to global progress on issues ranging from climate change to democratization in the Middle East to international economic stability. The three debates have covered a wide range of domestic and foreign policy subjects – some cursorily through talking points, some combatively through half-truths, some fairly.

Now it is up to voters to connect the dots. While it was the design of the debates to treat international issues separately, last night underscored the need to recognize domestic economic priorities and stability equally as foreign policy.

The candidates could have been bolder and clearer, but a choice exists between two paths toward economic recovery. The task is to decide which approach will promote America’s  competitiveness and credibility abroad as much as its prosperity at home.

Kurt Shillinger is a former political reporter for The Christian Science Monitor. He also covered sub-Saharan Africa for The Boston Globe.

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