On Tuesday night, President Obama and Former Governor Mitt Romney sparred in the second presidential debate of the election season. After President Obama’s dismal performance on October 3, going into the debate the media consensus coalesced on one salient point: all of the pressure was on Barack Obama. The President needed to have a good night. And if he did not – if he had another middling performance – it would be difficult for him, as an incumbent president, to arrest the Romney campaign’s momentum and win the election come November.
When the dust settled and the spin room quieted, it was evident that Obama had delivered. After the debate, before the President’s motorcade sped away, Obama’s senior advisor David Plouffe exulted the President’s performance, remarking: “If the election were held today, I’m as confident as anything I’ve been in my life, that we would win the election.” The real story coming out of the debate, however, might not be the strength of President Obama’s performance, but the fundamental weakness of Romney’s.
It was immediately clear that Romney approached this debate much as he had the first: Romney sought to push around the moderator and aggressively attack President Obama for his failures and missteps as President. Throughout the night, Romney interrupted Obama and the moderator, Candy Crowley of CNN, ad nauseam. And at the very beginning, Romney tested the waters, repeating a tactic he had used on Jim Lehrer just two weeks earlier:
CROWLEY: I got to – I got to move you on –
ROMNEY: He gets the first –
CROWLEY: – and the next question –
ROMNEY: He actually got –
CROWLEY: – for you –
ROMNEY: He actually got the first question. So I get the last question – last answer –
CROWLEY: (Inaudible) in the follow up, it doesn’t quite work like that. But I’m going to give you a chance here. I promise you, I’m going to.
. . .
ROMNEY: Candy, Candy –
But this time around, Romney, as the above exchange makes clear, was facing a very different moderator in Candy Crowley. And the man he joined onstage was a very different President Obama. Obama was determined, focused and energized throughout the night. Obama looked like the man many had put into office in 2008. The most startling example of this, and one of the moments that will endure, was the exchange between Obama and Romney on Libya.
In many ways, the Libya exchange represents Tuesday’s debate in microcosm. Obama filled out his entire office for the first time in weeks. And Romney reminded America precisely why he is not prepared for the presidency. Before getting to that exchange, however, it is vitally important to get the details right about the incident.
On September 11, 2012, prompted by an anti-Islam movie produced in the United States, protests erupted in parts of the Arab world. That morning, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, preemptively released a statement (one that was not sanctioned by the U.S. Ambassador) condemning “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.” The statement did not explicitly refer to the video, but noted that the embassy “firmly reject[s] the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.” After the statement, ultraconservative Islamists began protesting outside the U.S. Embassy. In the words of protestor Abdel-Hamid Ibrahim, the protests were “a very simple reaction to harming our prophet.”
At the time of the protests, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo was largely empty. The U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, was in Washington, and most embassy staff had left the compound before the protests began. During the protests, dozens of Egyptians scaled the embassy walls, proceeded to desecrate the American flag, and replaced it with a black flag with a Muslim declaration of faith: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet.” By Tuesday evening, the protests in Egypt had grown, with thousands standing outside the embassy. Reports then emerged of attacks on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
At 10:08 p.m. ET, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton confirmed reports that one American had been killed in the attack in Libya. Shortly thereafter, Politico, citing an “administration official,” reported that the Obama Administration disavowed the statement by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. And then, at 10:25 p.m. ET, the Romney campaign lifted an embargo on a statement (originally the statement was embargoed until midnight) highly critical of the Obama Administration: “I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
In response, at 12:11 a.m. ET, the Obama campaign accused Romney of playing politics with a crisis: “We are shocked that, at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya, Governor Romney would choose to launch a political attack.” The next morning, on September 12, President Obama released a statement “condemning the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi,” and noting that “[w]hile the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants.” Shortly thereafter, in the Rose Garden, Obama proclaimed, “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter the character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for. Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America. We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done.”
Photo Source: United States Government on Flickr
Over the next several weeks, despite Obama’s statement in the Rose Garden that the Libya attack was an “act of terror,” officials in the Obama Administration were hesitant to suggest that it had been planned in advance. For example, on September 13, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said authorities “are very cautious about drawing any conclusions with regard to who the perpetrators were, what their motivations were, [and] whether it was premeditated” prior to completing an investigation. And on September 19, Jay Carney said that “[b]ased on the information that we had at the time and have to this day, we do not have evidence that it was premeditated.” Given the protests occurring in other parts of the Arab world, this was not an unreasonable (and it might have even been the more prudent) position to take. But over time it became increasingly clear that the attack on the U.S. mission in Libya, in contrast to the protests in Egypt and elsewhere, “involved a small number of militants with ties to al-Qaeda in North Africa.”
In Tuesday night’s presidential debate, the crisis in Libya was broached by a question from the town hall audience: “[Myself and a few co-workers] were sitting around, talking about Libya, and we were reading and became aware of reports that the State Department refused extra security for our embassy in Benghazi, Libya, prior to the attacks that killed four Americans. Who was it that denied enhanced security and why?”
The answer to the question of who denied the extra security for the embassy should be clear. It is the State Department, and by extension, the Chief of Mission, that is responsible for “developing and implementing security policies and programs that provide for the protection of all U.S. Government personnel (including accompanying dependents) on official duty abroad.” Indeed, on the eve of the debate, Secretary of State Clinton, seemingly trying to deflect criticism away from Obama, told CNN, “I take responsibility. I’m in charge of the State Department’s 60,000-plus people all over the world [at] 275 posts.” This is simply not the type of decision that reaches the President’s (or Vice-President’s) desk, and there is no reason to believe that Mr. Obama had any hand in the decision to deny extra security for the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi. And though she rightly took responsibility, it is doubtful that Secretary Clinton made decision either.
Regardless of who made the specific decision, however, U.S. Ambassadors and other diplomats remain the representatives of the executive branch, a fact Obama immediately recognized in his response: “Well, let me first of all talk about our diplomats, because they serve all around the world and do an incredibly job in a very dangerous situation. And these aren’t just representatives of the United States, they are my representatives. I send them there, oftentimes into harm’s way. I know these folks and I know their families. So nobody is more concerned about their safety and security than I am.” Obama then pivoted to criticize Mr. Romney’s response to the crisis: “While we were still dealing with our diplomats being threatened, Governor Romney put out a press release, trying to make political points, and that’s not how a Commander in Chief operates. You don’t turn national security into a political issue. Certainly not right when it’s happening.” Then it was Mitt Romney’s turn.
Photo Source: Politifact
Given the criticism Romney has received for his response to the Libya crisis, it is astonishing that the Romney has to press this specific line of attack. For example, NBC’s Chuck Todd called Romney’s campaign statement after the attack “irresponsible” and a “bad mistake.” National Journal’s Ron Fournier called Romney’s actions “ham-handed” and “inaccurate.” Mark Halperin, senior political analyst for Time magazine, called Romney’s response “craven” and the most “ill-advised move of ’12.” Foreign policy writer Blake Hounshell remarked, “The Romney campaign’s politicization of the embassy attacks is even worse than I expected.” And former Ronald Reagan speechwriter and conservative columnist Peggy Noonan lamented: “I don’t feel that Mr. Romney has been doing himself any favors in the past few hours . . . Sometimes when really bad things happen, when hot things happen, cool words or no words is the way to go.”
There is a real question, posed by Martha Raddatz in the vice-presidential debate, whether Libya represented a “massive intelligence failure.” This is the argument that Romney needed to make, and perhaps he will in the foreign policy debate on October 22. But on Tuesday night, as he has so many times before, Romney completely ignored this legitimate criticism, opting instead to focus on whether or not the Obama Administration accurately described the incident – i.e. whether the incident should have been called a “terrorist attack” or a “spontaneous demonstration.”
President Obama rebutted Romney’s remarks in the debate by noting (correctly) that when he stood in the Rose Garden he “told the American people . . . [t]hat this was an act of terror.” And, clearly angered by Romney’s remarks, Obama blasted Romney and his campaign:
[T]he suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the Secretary of State, our U.N. ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive. That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as president, that’s not what I do as Commander in Chief.
What the crisis was called would not have, and could not have, changed the simple fact that on September 11, 2012, four Americans were killed in Benghazi, Libya. What matters is not in how the incident is described, but in how the United States responds to it. And despite the administration’s hesitation to describe the incident as a “terrorist attack,” do you really think that label made a difference to the people investigating the incident and preparing the U.S.’s response? To suggest that it would is precisely why Obama called Romney’s behavior “offensive.”
It is remarkable that, after what one would hope would have been a month of reflection and serious deliberation, Romney would continue repeating this argument on the biggest of national stages. Obama exposed Romney on what should be a legitimate critique of his administration. And at the same time, Romney was made to look incredibly unpatriotic.
Perhaps more importantly, however, is that Romney looked profoundly un-presidential. In the debate on Tuesday night, President Obama filled out his entire office. Romney, in contrast, looked like a dithering fool, unworthy of the presidential spotlight. Candy Crowley’s devastating live fact-check of Romney just moments later (which could have left her career in tatters if she was wrong) only reinforced this image.
What this all means for the election is unclear (keep abreast of the polls here at Of Politics and Men). President Obama’s performance should arrest the Romney campaigns momentum. But whether or not it moves the needle in his direction is an open question. The impression left by this debate, however, may not be the strength of Obama’s performance, but the fundamental weakness of Romney’s and the damage he has done to his image as the credible Republican alternative to President Obama.