Romney’s missed opportunity on Libya

October 17, 2012

Toward the end of the second presidential debate on Tuesday night, the controversy over Libya was threatening to cast a pall over what had otherwise been a much-improved debate performance by President Obama.

By the end of the exchange over the issue, though, it was clear that Libya was not going to be Obama’s next undoing – and in fact, the moment probably cost Mitt Romney the most.

Asked a tough question about who is to blame for a lack of security at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, where Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others were killed, Obama did what he had to: say the security of Americans’ overseas rests on his shoulders.

You could almost see Romney licking his chops. He proceeded to criticize Obama for holding a fundraiser the day after the attack and for not calling it an act of terror for two weeks.

But what followed was about the best Obama could have hoped for out of the exchange.

After Obama devoted some time to a stern and direct rebuke of Republicans and Romney for politicizing the issue – Obama looked directly at Romney while doing this, and it played well – Romney took his turn.

Romney took issue with Obama’s statement that he had called the attack an act of terror the day after it occurred. Romney even asked for Obama to repeat the claim, believing he had caught him in a lie.

Instead of trying to explain the exchange, let’s just go to the transcript:

ROMNEY: I think it's interesting the president just said something which -- which is that on the day after the attack, he went into the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror.

OBAMA: That’s what I said.

ROMNEY: You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror? It was not a spontaneous demonstration? Is that what you’re saying?

OBAMA: Please proceed, governor.

ROMNEY: I want to make sure we get that for the record, because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.

OBAMA: Get the transcript.

At that point, debate moderator Candy Crowley inserted herself into the debate in a big way, pointing out that Obama had, in fact, referred to "terror" at the Rose Garden press conference.

(Here’s Obama’s quote: “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”)

Crowley interjected: “He did, in fact, sir (call it an act of terror).”

Obama, clearly pleased with how the exchange had panned out, then offered: “Can you say that a little louder, Candy?” And she did.

For a second, the air went out of the room, and a key GOP attack was rendered less effective.

Now, Republicans will argue today (and argued late Tuesday after the debate) that Obama didn’t directly label the attack in Benghazi as terrorism in the Rose Garden, speaking only broadly about "terror." They will also note that, for two weeks thereafter, he didn’t use the word “terrorism” while discussing the tragedy.

(Crowley even acknowledged this after the debate.)

But the fact is, instead of having a policy argument about what Obama did or didn’t do for Americans in Benghazi and how he handled the situation in the days after it occurred – a very tough issue and one that will undoubtedly be a major theme of the foreign policy debate next week – we’re going to have a process argument over whether Romney flubbed his attack on the issue and when exactly Obama called the attack "terrorism."

And in a debate that was otherwise pretty tight (a CNN poll after the debate showed 46 percent thought Obama won and 39 percent said Romney won), the exchange over Libya turned out about as well for Obama as he could have hoped.

The question now is whether it remains a potent line of attack for the debate next week. It very well might be, but this is at least a momentary problem for the Romney campaign on an issue that otherwise will be tough for Obama to handle.

Republicans can still argue that Obama refused to use the word "terror" for two weeks and that he placed the blame on a spontaneous event rather than a coordinated attack. And that's potent.

But for Romney, whose foray into foreign policy in the 2012 presidential race often hasn’t gone well, the moment served as an unhelpful side story.

Romney launches big ad buy: The Romney campaign is going up with $12 million worth of ads in nine states.

The states are basically unchanged from the ones we've been focusing on for months: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. The campaign is not buying time in Pennsylvania -- despite some encouraging polling there.

Romney's campaign was narrowly outraised September but still raised a very impressive $170 million. It has generally bought ad time just a couple days early, not wanting to broadcast (so to speak) its strategy to Democrats.

Majority PAC launching $8.4 million Senate ad blitz: The Democratic super PAC is releasing a new round of TV ads in nine of the most competitive Senate races. In six of the nine states (MissouriMontanaNorth DakotaVirginiaOhio and Connecticut) Democrats are defending seats, while in three others (ArizonaIndiana and Nevada), they are playing offense. The Indiana buy is a joint effort with the centrist group Center Forward. 

The Missouri ad is notable; it slams Rep. Todd Akin (R) over his August remark that "legitimate rape" rarely causes pregnancy. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) has also released a TV ad hitting Akin over his controversial comments.  

The Majority PAC buy comes a day after conservative nonprofit group Crossroads GPS launched a seven-state, $5 million buy

Fixbits:

"We are at war with terrorists," Paul Ryan says.

An internal poll conducted for McCaskill's campaign by Kiley and Company shows her leading Akin 52 percent to 38 percent.

The Duggar family, from TLC's "19 Kids and Counting," endorse Akin.

An automated SurveyUSA poll of the Washington governor's race shows former congressman Jay Inslee (D) at 47 percent and state Attorney General Rob McKenna (R) at 44 percent.

An internal poll from Rep. Brad Sherman's (D-Calif.) campaign shows him leading Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) by 25 points.

A super PAC is going to spend $2.5 million to reelect Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) in a very tough race for the GOP.

The NRA backs Rep. Ben Chandler (D-Ky.).

Rep. David Cicilline's (D-R.I.) GOP challenger gets the endorsement of Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles -- kind of.

A Democratic poll shows Rep. David Rivera (R-Fla.) trailing by 11 points.

Must-reads:

"Jesse Jackson Jr.: Political candidate and subject of many unanswered questions" -- Manuel Roig-Franzia, Washington Post

"In VP Debate, Biden Seemed to Overstate His Role in Social Security Reform" -- Jake Tapper, ABC News

"Fact Check: Biden's too tall football tale" -- Domenico Montanaro, NBC News

"Supreme Court won’t get involved in Ohio dispute; all must be allowed to vote early" -- Robert Barnes, Washington Post

 
Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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Chris Cillizza | October 16, 2012