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October 17, 2012 11:26 AM Tripping Over the Threshold Of an Actual Issue

By Ed Kilgore

The most intense day-after spin from the second presidential debate involves the bizarre exchange near the end when Romney accused the president of lying in saying he had referred to “acts of terror” in his Rose Garden statement the day after the killings in Benghazi, and then moderator Candy Crowley confirming that the president had in fact used that term.

Conservatives are beside themselves today attacking Crowley for intervening, and also claiming that although she was technically right, Romney was ultimately correct in accusing the administration of insufficient clarity in blaming the killings on jihadist terrorist groups.

To which I reply: too bad. This is what can happen when demagogues make a slip.

Conservatives have now had over a month to tie their endless finger-pointing over the events in Benghazi to some larger theme, and have basically failed. If I were them, I’d probably argue the whole series of incidents shows that the administration (and Democrats generally) think the Global War on Terror—which they never much believed in to begin with—ended with the killing of Osama bin Laden, and have been proven very dangerously wrong. But instead, some conservative have gotten distracted by their Islamophobia into going nuts over the administration’s “apologies” for an obnoxious video, and others have gotten distracted by their lust for war with Iran into making this all about “signals” of America’s “lack of resolve.” And Mitt Romney’s done a little of everything without much clarity.

Last night he stumbled on the threshold of another opportunity to make the Libya killings a major issue by getting an important fact wrong. Had he not done so, he would have still probably devolved into incoherent non sequiturs about the killings somehow emboldening Iran or upsetting the Only Ally In the Whole Wide World Who Matters, Bibi Netanyahu. I suppose he’ll have another few days to get his argument together before the final debate. But the idea that he got “hosed by the ref” at Hofstra is absurd. He planned a hit on Obama, and just screwed it up.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • David in NY on October 17, 2012 11:38 AM:

    Is it possible, as I have seen hypothesized, that Mitt didn't even know about Obama's actual statement? That his people were taken in by their (or Fox's) spin on the events, so that he got hammered?

  • Josef K on October 17, 2012 11:39 AM:

    He planned a hit on Obama, and just screwed it up.

    Not the best phrasing there, especially given the context involved. I can't and don't argue with the underlying point, and while rhetorical deftness doesn't necessarily reflect actual strategic thinking (if any is involved in the first place), it does bespeak of poorly of the subject's accumen for actual decision-making.

    In other words, if Romney screws up something as simple as rhetorical cheap shot, how can we trust him in a real crisis?

  • Ronald on October 17, 2012 11:39 AM:

    I've said it before and it bears repeating: when your only source for news and information is your own echo chamber and the fools at Fox news, then you're going to get your ass handed to you for things like this.
    Memes are not facts.

  • tonyroma on October 17, 2012 11:41 AM:

    What so many remain ignorant of is the reportage of the NYT's David Kilpatrick who was actually THERE at the consulate during the attacks and has consistently quoted participants as launching them as their kindred response to the day's myriad protests and skirmishes over the blasphemous video.

    After a month of conflicting statements and partisan criticism, the circumstances surrounding the attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11 have become clouded in ambiguities and questions: Did the attack grow out of anger against an American-made video mocking the Prophet Muhammad, or was it waged by an affiliate of Al Qaeda out to mark the 11th anniversary of its attack on United States soil?

    To Libyans who witnessed the assault and know the attackers, there is little doubt what occurred: a well-known group of local Islamist militants struck the United States Mission without any warning or protest, and they did it in retaliation for the video. That is what the fighters said at the time, speaking emotionally of their anger at the video without mentioning Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or the terrorist strikes of 11 years earlier. And it is an explanation that tracks with their history as members of a local militant group determined to protect Libya from Western influence. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/16/world/africa/election-year-stakes-overshadow-nuances-of-benghazi-investigation.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1&hp&pagewanted=all&


    Frankly, the answer is BOTH; the attacks were in response to outrage over the video and WERE also "terrorist" in nature at the same time. And if one questions how they could be mounted in such a timely fashion:
    Other Benghazi militia leaders who know Ansar al-Shariah say it was capable of carrying out the attack by itself with only a few hours' planning, and as recently as June one of its leaders, Mr. Zahawi, declared that it could destroy the American Mission. (same link)
  • gregor on October 17, 2012 11:41 AM:

    Either it reflects poorly on all of us a people that the election will be decided on the exact words that Obama used or the Romney campaign is highlighting this triviality because it does not have any real issue to talk about.

  • Epicurus on October 17, 2012 11:46 AM:

    All I know is that Mitt Romney is a practiced liar, an obnoxious bully and the last person for whom I would ever cast my vote. I was getting angry at the TV last night, watching him carry a slime trail all over that stage last night. I do hope the voting public saw the same things I did last night.

  • rip on October 17, 2012 11:48 AM:

    I find it bizarre that Republicans would take an issue they might get some traction on: Insufficient diplomatic security and the rejected request to strengthen it, and then step all over it with pathetic conspiracy theories about the Obama administration trying to cover up the nature of the attack, as though there was something to be gained from portraying it as spontaneous rather than premeditated.

    Conservatives seem far more obsessed with labeling things, making sure "Islamic" always precedes "terror" or that undocumented aliens are called not just illegal aliens, but "illegals", than they are about actually doing anything about them. The Bush attitude towards Bin Laden being a prime example of this.

  • R on October 17, 2012 11:50 AM:

    Conservatives are beside themselves because the linchpin of Romney's campaign strategy -- lying and counting on the MSM to say nothing -- is looking a lot flimsier now that Crowley had the audacity to actually moderate.

  • Keith M Ellis on October 17, 2012 11:57 AM:

    @tonyroma, that's not what I've read about the attack -- and what I've read is what was reported from late that night.

    That is, that there was intelligence to suggest that something was being planned and that the use of RPGs and other weaponry indicated that the attack was not spontaneously in response to the video. *But* that there was a clear distinction between this group of well-armed attackers and the initial demonstrators and that what most likely happened is that the militia, having already had something planned and the weapons and equipment at the ready, took advantage of the genuine protest over the video.

    I don't really see how it's one or the other when the combination of both factors makes, by far, the most sense.

    But, also, personally I think that there's some things we don't know about the embassy and the personnel that were there -- I think it stands to reason that the activity of the militias there, and the fact that we know of intelligence that they were planning activity, indicate that there was likely an ongoing intelligence operation operating or being supported out of the embassy and that, I suspect, plays into the Obama's administration reluctance to talk about this in terms of the militia's planned operation. Furthermore, I think that people in the Romney camp suspect (or know) much of this and they are fully aware that the admin doesn't want, or can't, talk about this and are therefore willing to play politics with it without much fear of being contradicted. And, well, also they realize that actively denying that the attack was related to the video would have negative consequences in the Muslim world which the admin certainly wants to avoid -- so they know that the admin is in a difficult position for *national security* reasons and are perfectly willing to attempt to exploit this for political gain. Which tells you a lot about these people.

    I do think that the analysis presented by Ed is correct with regard to how they're spinning this and how the average GOP and low-information voter perceives it (that it's "apologizing for the video" versus "evil terrorists"). But I don't think that Romney nor his handlers and those like them see it in those terms. They recognize the complexity. But they're the kind of people who say that Ryan plan pays for itself.

  • grandpa john on October 17, 2012 11:59 AM:

    Mitt personifies the personality described in an old saying I can remember growing up

    He would tell a lie when the truth would be better

  • Mimikatz on October 17, 2012 12:00 PM:

    Mitt was really hoist by his own petard last night. Of course his news source is Fox and Redstate and Jennifer Rubin. Facts are for little people. So he didn't know. But more importantly, he revealed his view of politics as a gladitorial single combat when he went for Obama, bug-eyed and jut-jawed and eyebrows raised, after Candy Crowley told him to be quiet. That's why she corrected him, not just because he had said something false, but because he disrespected her in the process. Most of the time she let him blather on, but not that time.

    Chris Hayes made a good point on MSNBC saying that the whole evening's performance was a demonstration of Mitt's belief, like so many of the entitled, that he can just do what he wants, make his own rules, despite the debate rules he had agreed to and regardless of the facts. It bit him hard on that one, and he was unmasked for the blockading hothead and bully he really is. Women in particular, I imagine, found him very distasteful last night.

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on October 17, 2012 12:03 PM:

    In Republican world, the referee is just there to give one team a chance to claim the ball went between the goalposts and the other team a chance to claim it didn't.

  • Neil Bates on October 17, 2012 12:29 PM:

    Candy has affirmed she is not walking back her defense of what President Obama said (which was indeed, the direct issue at hand.) I don't think there is really a contradiction here. "Terror" is a personal characterization of the nature of an act, the intention at the time (whether premeditated or not!) and its effects. OTOH, the CIA/State Department were more narrowly and technically (as is their job) focusing on the issue of "planning" behind the attack - something not really as relevant to the *characterization* of the moment, as some would pretend.

    Also, considering the complexity and difficulty of scrying subjective experiences and intentions, it really isn't a clear technical intel issue of whether or not perps were also motivated and inflamed by the notorious video, on top of whatever else may have been at work. Finally, the oft' repeated claim that "in any case, rioters just wouldn't have RPGs lying around" is not very convincing since rebels moved and drew from the people, and many such weapons were indeed "loose" among the citizenry (?)

    Also, I'm surprised Obama doesn't make more of the distinguished and mostly popular General Petraeus being head of the CIA, since the Right is generally so supportive of him and some floated him as possible 2008 GOP candidate (as sort of mirror Wesley Clark.) How many would really want to badmouth him, too?

  • Quaker in a Basement on October 17, 2012 12:29 PM:

    Right on the money, Ed.

    This should have been an easy score for Romney, but he found a way to mess it up and then doubled down on his error. Before last night, Romney had managed to put his embarrassing performance on 9/12 behind him. Last night, he enthusiastically wallowed in it all over again.

  • SYSPROG on October 17, 2012 12:31 PM:

    I'm sorry but am I the only one who thinks it 'takes some brass' to be attacking the PRESIDENT on clarity when Romney came out before we even knew what had HAPPENED in Libya and made an (erroneous) statement? REALLY?

  • Bokonon on October 17, 2012 12:35 PM:

    I just don't understand the GOP's obsession with invoking specific magic words. What is doubly strange is that the GOP couples this with a radical view that reality is just an artificial contruct, and that beliefs and characterizations and narratives and impressions matter more than facts. And if you believe something really fiercely in this GOP universe, then it is valid - and the facts then bend and warp into shape to fit a pre-existing narrative, rather than the other way around.

    My favorite example of that is the GOP's attack line that Obama engaged in an "apology tour" or that he "apologizes for America" or somehow sympathizes with America's enemies - claims which Romney used last night, as part of this same exchange. Whole BOOKS have now been written on those ideas now. And it is a characterization built on a characterization built on a characterization based on an original false interpretation.

    Pretty revealing that Romney revealed himself as living in this closed GOP belief system last night. He isn't just exploiting it - he lives there, and drinks the Kool Aid.

  • T2 on October 17, 2012 12:38 PM:

    Romney made a fool of himself the day of the attack with the "apologies" remark- one not founded in truth. Last night he did it again. Bengazi is not in Canada or Switzerland...it is in a country of rebels and renegades and terror cells and, yes, very poor people trying to scratch out their lives. An attack like the one that happened is a sad as it is predictable. Sure there should have been better security....but how much is better? The Fourth Army? A Seal Team?
    I hope in the next debate, when this comes up, that Obama points out the Billions of dollars stripped out of the security budget for these Embassies by the Republican controlled House of Reps.

  • Keith M Ellis on October 17, 2012 12:41 PM:

    "Finally, the oft' repeated claim that 'in any case, rioters just wouldn't have RPGs lying around' is not very convincing since rebels moved and drew from the people, and many such weapons were indeed 'loose' among the citizenry (?)"

    That may be the case, but I think it would be as much a mistake for the left, even more so the administration, to respond to this framing by the right by digging themselves (ourselves) into the contrary position that this wasn't a planned operation by an armed and organized group.

    It is whatever it is actually is -- a lot of people, including Ed, seem to believe that this was especially troubling in the sense that someone might have screwed up. I'm not certain of that -- to me, it reads as the kind of extraordinary and tragic event that could just as likely be the kind of thing that happens now and then in an unsafe world but which people reliably freak the hell out about in very irrational ways, ascribing great significance to it. I think that should be resisted until the facts warrant a conclusion that it really is significant of things that should explicitly concern the voters. Until then, taking some politicized position on it, especially in a defensive response to framing by the political opposition, is foolish.

  • George on October 17, 2012 12:41 PM:

    On this basis, I'm trying to advance a meme, not of the binders variety, but of Mitt as Wile E. Coyot, with that Libya grenade he gleefully wielded blew up in his face, leaving scorch marks and his hair blown back.

  • exlibra on October 17, 2012 12:46 PM:

    [...]he would have still probably devolved into incoherent non sequiturs about the killings somehow emboldening Iran or upsetting the Only Ally In the Whole Wide World Who Matters, Bibi Netanyahu. -- Ed Killgore

    He did that, too. I distinctly remember his saying, in accusatory tones, that the President said he'd "put daylight between US and Israel", then pausing, for the audience to express outrage.

    He doesn't seem to see the difference between "an ally" and "a twin", and is unaware that the majority of the US population agrees with the President -- Israel is not the twin of US, much less a dominant one. Not to mention that he (Mitt) also seems to think that the Yahoo's brand of saber-rattling policies is uniformly accepted in Israel, which it's not.

  • Joe Friday on October 17, 2012 1:07 PM:

    Oh what great fun to watch Willard's face, when he first doubled-down, and then tripled-down, because he thought he was about to squash Obama like a bug, to then get smacked upside the head.

    And then Obama sticks the fork in by asking Candy to repeat it louder.

  • Ron Byers on October 17, 2012 1:54 PM:

    Joe Friday, I too enjoyed watching Romney's face during the exchange. It revealed to me a man who doesn't have a real grasp of the actual facts. I think he is briefed by the State Department and the CIA like all presidential candidates are, but he really pays attention to Fox and Friends for his "real" news. He was taken entirely off guard.

  • bdop4 on October 17, 2012 1:56 PM:

    "Conservatives are beside themselves today attacking Crowley for intervening, and also claiming that although she was technically right, Romney was ultimately correct in accusing the administration of insufficient clarity in blaming the killings on jihadist terrorist groups."

    Except that isn't how it went down. Romney specifically alleged that Obama made no reference to terror in the speech. It was only at the end of the exchange that he referred to a coordinated terrorist assault on the compound.

    Conservatives are going to jump the shark on this issue, if they haven't already. Most reasonable people recognize that the Obama administration handled the situation poorly, but their effort to try to spin this into some grand conspiracy should turn off a lot of independent voters.

  • Ron Byers on October 17, 2012 2:12 PM:

    Joe Friday, I too enjoyed watching Romney's face during the exchange. It revealed to me a man who doesn't have a real grasp of the actual facts. I think he is briefed by the State Department and the CIA like all presidential candidates are, but he really pays attention to Fox and Friends for his "real" news. He was taken entirely off guard.

  • Peter C on October 17, 2012 2:28 PM:

    I think the issue is now dead. It doesn't survive a future rejoinder of "Mitt, you were caught out in the second debate blatantly lying about this subject. We don't need to go into this again. Let's just move on to your next lie ..."

  • Taylor Drain on October 17, 2012 2:39 PM:

    Dead like birtherism, dead like work requirements for welfare, dead like free phones for moochers, that kind of dead?

  • John Poet on October 17, 2012 5:06 PM:

    It does sound like Romney has been listening to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, and mistook their recent rantings on the subject for factual material.

    Oops.

  • Just Guessing on October 17, 2012 5:48 PM:

    Been away for a couple of weeks. Can't believe this infestation of trolls. Obviously Ed you are doing a good job.

    p.s. Happy anniversary.

  • Post American on October 17, 2012 5:54 PM:

    It was unintentionally revealed last week the the US Compound in Benghazi was actually a CIA Black Site, classified Top Secret. This is what happens when you put politics ahead of the oath of office or national security. It also explains a lot about how the Government responded, and why there wasn't a contingent of US marines guarding it. And it still pales in comparison to September 11, 2001, the US Military Grade Anthrax Attacks on the lame stream media and Congress, London, Madrid, Bali, Istanbul, and finally the disastrous FUBAR Wars in Iraq/Afghanistan.

  • Doug on October 17, 2012 6:30 PM:

    "I just don't understand the GOP's obsession with invoking specific magic words." Bokonon @ 12:35 PM

    Because the GOP's actual GOVERNING policies (such as they are) are usually 180 degrees different in their effects on voters that the policies the GOP CAMPAIGNED on?
    Too many poor, and poorly educated, white voters have either themselves taken advantage of various government aid programs or know someone who has for Republicans to DIRECTLY target those programs. But if the "target" is people who "misuse" those programs, become "dependent" on those programs AND can be objectified as "welfare queens" or "lazy", there's a much better chance of Republicans gaining the support needed to gut those programs for everyone.
    The same tactic applies to just about every "policy" the GOP produces, including foreign policy: If you can't blind'em with brilliance, baffle them with bullsh*t!

    gblack, project much?

  • steverino on October 17, 2012 6:32 PM:

    Re: The admin maybe having to keep quiet due to classified issues-- remember (well, I remember *reading* about it) that JFKennedy hammered Nixon on the "missile gap" which was fictitious, and Kennedy knew it; but Nixon couldn't refute him without revealing classified information.

  • Flyover State on October 17, 2012 6:55 PM:

    Put aside the rhetoric, the spin, the animus just for a moment.
    For many Americans, including myself, the question still remains: Which candidate stands a better chance of leading America's economy out of the existing mess, creating jobs, and building a better-safer future for my children.

    Based on last night's debate I will be voting for Romney. The last 4 years do not justify my vote cast for President Obama.

  • Captain Greg on October 17, 2012 7:30 PM:

    When you interpret the meaning of statements, you must look at the context. In the president's speech, he spoke first about how the video was bad, but the offended people shouldn't react violently. He then went on to reflect on the 9/11/2001 attacks. Then he made the general statement about "acts of terror." I could accect an inconclusive interpretation that he was labeling the Libyan attack as terrorism, if all we had to go on was this statement. However, his and his staff's continued reference to the video over the next few weeks in the press, at stump speeches, on Letterman and The View, and at the U.N. forces me to rethink that interpretation, and I just can't reach the conclusion that he really wanted to call it terrorism.