Is Donald Trump a secret Obama supporter?
That may be the only logical explanation for Mr. Trump’s snooze-worthy, instantly irrelevant “announcement” concerning the president, which he’d nevertheless hyped for several days as really, really big and certain to change the entire course of the campaign.
Turns out, we were correct in surmising that it would have something to do with the “birther” conspiracy theory claiming President Obama may not have been born in the United States. But even we underestimated how totally news-less and uninteresting Trump’s “big reveal” would actually be.
In case you missed it (and, trust us, don’t worry if you did), the announcement amounted to nothing more than Trump offering to give $5 million to the charity of Mr. Obama’s choice – inner-city children in Chicago, Trump helpfully suggested – in return for the president releasing all of his college records and applications and passport records and applications.
It was so utterly banal that it actually felt almost like a joke – we wondered, briefly, if it could be a piece of performance art. As if Trump was really telling reporters: The joke’s on you for being willing to chase even the remote possibility of a scandal here! But that would probably be giving Trump too much credit.
It did, however, lead us to wonder: When did October surprises get so, well, pathetic? And how, exactly, did we get to this point – where the final weeks of the campaign inevitably seem to bring out a host of ridiculous non-scandal “scandals,” in the search for something new and game-changing to talk about?
The other “surprise” getting attention Wednesday is the effort to unseal the 1991 testimony given by Mitt Romney in the divorce of Tom and Maureen Stemberg. Mr. Stemberg is the founder of Staples, a company Mr. Romney has often touted as one of Bain Capital’s big success stories. The Boston Globe has been seeking access to Romney’s testimony, and Mrs. Stemberg appeared in court Wednesday with high-profile attorney Gloria Allred to say she supported unsealing the documents.
It’s less clear what will emerge from this particular storyline, but we still feel relatively confident in saying that it would have to be something pretty huge – reflecting directly on Romney himself – to actually affect the presidential race. Right now, there’s not a lot of evidence to suggest that it will rise to that level.
Of course, in a very close race, even small things can matter. The uncovering of George W. Bush’s 1976 DUI in the final days of the 2000 campaign did not affect how most voters felt about the candidates, according to polls, with just seven percent saying it raised serious questions about Mr. Bush’s qualifications for the presidency (and most of those voters were already supporting Al Gore, anyway). But in a race that wound up being a virtual tie, it’s possible that news may well have handed Mr. Gore the popular vote.
Still, that was a relatively serious, albeit decades-old, revelation about the candidate himself. Which made it far more relevant – and worth covering – than this year’s crop of gossipy October distractions.
Has Indiana Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock just become a big problem for Mitt Romney and the national GOP? That question arises because of a controversial comment on abortion that Mr. Mourdock made in a debate Tuesday night with his Democratic opponent, Rep. Joe Donnelly.
Asked whether abortion should be allowed in cases of rape or incest, Mourdock said, “I struggled with myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something God intended to happen.”
After the debate, Mourdock clarified his remark, saying that rape is a horrible thing that he does not believe is itself part of a divine plan.
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“God creates life, and that was my point,” Mourdock said in a statement. “God does not want rape, and by no means was I suggesting that he does.”
But Democrats seized on his comment and portrayed it as insensitive and evidence of an extreme view on abortion and women’s rights. They also pointed out that Mr. Romney, the GOP presidential nominee, had cut an ad in support of Mourdock this week.
“Richard Mourdock’s rape comments are outrageous and demeaning to women. Unfortunately, they’ve become part and parcel of the modern Republican Party’s platform toward women’s health, as Congressional Republicans like Paul Ryan have worked to outlaw all abortions and even narrow the definition of rape,” Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in a statement following the debate.
The Romney campaign immediately distanced itself from Mourdock’s words, saying they did not reflect its candidate’s views. Romney is antiabortion but does support an exception for cases of rape and incest. His running mate, Representative Ryan, in the past has rejected such an exception.
But Romney aides did not comment as to whether the former Massachusetts governor would still support Mourdock’s Senate bid.
When Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin said in an interview that women’s bodies have ways of suppressing pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape,” the GOP quickly pressured him to withdraw from the race. He refused and remains on the ballot.
With the race between Romney and President Obama so close, it’s a sure thing that Democrats will try to make use of Mourdock’s words. It’s possible they could have some marginal effect on women voters who remain undecided in swing states – a key target for the Obama campaign.
In a survey of swing-state voters, women placed “abortion” and “equal rights” among their top five issues, while men did not, according to a new Gallup analysis of polling data. This helps explain America’s persistent gender gap. If the electorate were purely female, Mr. Obama would lead by eight percentage points, according to Gallup. If it were all male, Romney would lead by 14.
Could Obama attract even more women voters? His strength among females has declined by three percentage points relative to 2008, according to Gallup’s numbers, so it’s possible he could win back women who supported him in the past. But his biggest gender problem is among men: He’s down by seven percentage points among male voters since 2008.
In that context, it’s possible that Mourdock’s words will have more effect on tight Senate races. In states such as Massachusetts, where Democrat Elizabeth Warren is battling incumbent Sen. Scott Brown (R), Democrats undoubtedly will run ads saying a vote for the GOP is a vote for a chamber controlled by politicians such as Mourdock.
As for Mourdock himself, the current state treasurer is locked in a surprisingly close race with Representative Donnelly in a GOP-leaning state. Donnelly also opposes abortion, but he supports an exemption for rape and incest victims. Mourdock, supported by tea party groups, ousted longtime Indiana GOP Sen. Richard Lugar in the Republican primary. He leads Donnelly by five percentage points in a recent Rasmussen poll.
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Does the US military still use horses and bayonets?
This question arises because of President Obama’s riposte against Mitt Romney on defense budgets in Monday night’s presidential debate. At one point Romney charged that the US Navy is now smaller than at any time since 1916. Obama came back with a smooth and perhaps pre-planned zinger.
“You mentioned the Navy ... and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of the military’s changed.”
The phrase “horses and bayonets” subsequently spawned a flood of tweets, as “binders full of women” did in the second candidate face-off. But as the descendent of one of the nation’s last horse cavalry commanders, this Decoder writer wonders about the accuracy of Obama’s words. He said the US has “fewer” horses and bayonets, not “none.” Is that accurate? If so, where are these things now?
Well, the bayonet thing is easy to elucidate. The Marines and the Army both still issue rifle-mounted knives to serve as hand weapons, utility knives, saws, and all-around handy items.
Bayonet training is an integral part of the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, which every recruit must pass. During such training, recruits fix OKC-3S bayonets underneath the muzzles of their rifles, effectively turning it into a spear. They’re taught thrusts, jabs, and slashes, according to a Marine public affairs account of such training. They then must use these techniques on a dummy-filled course intended to simulate close combat.
As for horses, there’s still at least one equestrian unit in the US Army. That’s the Caisson Platoon of the 3rd US Infantry, “The Old Guard.”
The Old Guard represents the Army in ceremonies throughout the Washington region and the nation at large. They’re the soldiers visitors see at Arlington National Cemetery and in presidential inaugural parades.
The Caisson Platoon uses horses for the solemn purpose of pulling caissons carrying caskets toward interment at Arlington. They also long performed in popular historic pageants such as the “Twilight Tattoo.”
A more recent use of these horses is to provide therapy for soldiers hurt in battle or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Since 2006, the Therapeutic Riding Program has used Old Guard soldiers and horses in once-a-week riding lessons for wounded warriors at a barn a few minutes from northern Virginia’s Fort Belvoir Community Hospital.
Old Army horses don’t just fade away, in case you’re wondering. The Old Guard offers up some Caisson Platoon veterans for adoption at the end of their careers. Currently a 17-year old gray Quarter Horse named Clyde is looking for a retirement home, for instance. So is Omar, a 21-year old black Standard Bred.
The Army keeps another batch of horses stabled near Fort Bragg, N.C., to help train Special Forces troops who might have to ride through rough territory. Horse-mounted US commandos played a pivotal role in the toppling of the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan in 2001.
The subject this time is foreign policy, and like the first two debates, there are rules the moderator – Bob Schieffer of CBS News – is supposed to enforce. The format calls for six 15-minute segments, each devoted to one international topic. Mr. Schieffer himself got to pick these subjects, and they are as follows:
• America’s role in the world.
• The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism, Part 1.
• The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism, Part 2.
• The rise of China and tomorrow’s world.
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Schieffer is supposed to open each segment with a question and then allow two minutes apiece for the candidates to respond. After this, he’s supposed to use the balance of the 15-minute segment to “facilitate a discussion on the topic,” according to the Commission on Presidential Debates.
Of course, this isn’t going to be Foreign Policy 101 with a bunch of students who don’t want to answer. “What should we do about Hezbollah? Mr. President? Governor Romney? Bueller? Anyone?”
Facilitating a discussion will be the least of moderator Schieffer’s problems. If the first two debates are any indication, it’s containing the discussion that’s going to be the challenge. Generally speaking, the first rule of political debates is to not answer the question that’s been asked, but answer the question you wish had been asked. Given that, we bet “Libya” comes up within seconds of Mr. Romney beginning his first response, as he steers the conversation to his campaign’s accusations that the administration mishandled the situation surrounding the Benghazi attack, which killed US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Mr. Obama is sure to have a prepared response to this, and it could be down the rabbit hole from there unless Schieffer gets them to broaden the horizon of the discussion.
If any reporter can do that, though, he might be the one. He’s old school, like Jim Lehrer, the moderator for the first debate. This means he believes the point is for the candidates to talk, not for him to strut.
How old school is he? He covered the tragic assassination of President Kennedy as a young reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1963. (He often tells the tale of how he gave Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother a ride to the Dallas police station after she called the paper looking for a lift. Less often he gets around to adding the fact that he had to borrow a car to do it because his own, a Triumph TR4 sports car, wasn’t really suitable for the job.)
But Schieffer’s also a modern TV personality, like second debate moderator Candy Crowley. As host of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” he’s comfortable in cutting interviewees off and trying to keep them on point.
“You’re a ref and you don’t want to have one guy filibuster,” Schieffer said in The Palm Beach Post interview. “You want both people to get an opportunity to state their position.”
Does this mean the third debate will have a tone between the freewheeling first and the Crowley-controlled second? We can only wait and see. Unlike many Washington reporters, Schieffer is liked and respected by folks on both sides of the political aisle, so neither Democrats nor Republicans have groused about him in advance of the fight in Florida.
A native Texan, Schieffer graduated from Texas Christian University and served a stint as a communications officer in the Air Force. After his run as a print reporter in Fort Worth, he jumped to TV and served as a local anchor before catching on with CBS in 1969.
In Washington he’s covered the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, and Congress. He credits his long-term survival in a cutthroat business to all the intramural politics he avoided while out of the office covering his beats.
His 2004 memoir, “This Just In: What I Couldn’t Tell You on TV,” is a breezy and informative look at the news business that’s well worth your time if you’re interested in the subject.
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That’s a central question bearing on whether President Obama is weak in foreign policy, as GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney charges. A clear picture of the behind-the-scenes action here may not emerge until histories are written years hence. But new reports on the eve of the third and final presidential debate suggest that at least some of the cause of the delay stemmed from the nature of intelligence community reports to the president on the tragedy.
Here’s what we know at the moment: On Sept. 16, US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice appeared on five TV talk shows and generally ascribed the attack to the ad hoc action of mobs infuriated by a crude anti-Islamic video made in the US. She said evidence gathered to that point indicated no premeditation on the part of attackers, but she did add that “extremists” might have escalated the violence once it began.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Ms. Rice took this line because that’s what the CIA was saying at the time. For more than a week, the daily briefing prepared for the president by the intelligence community held that the assault grew out of a spontaneous demonstration, write Journal reporters Adam Enous and Siobhan Gorham.
“The CIA was consistent from Sept. 13 to Sept. 21 that the attack evolved from a protest,” they write.
CIA analysts began to doubt this conclusion as more evidence about the confusing situation worked its way up through the intelligence chain. Lower level intelligence officials suspected the assertion about protests was outdated even as Rice was making the rounds of her Sunday talk show appearances, according to a story by reporter Eric Schmitt in The New York Times.
Given that the CIA began with only sketchy reports of what had happened in Benghazi, and that US operatives arrived on scene days later to sift evidence, it may be only natural that the agency’s story has shifted, according to intelligence officials quoted in the Times story.
As early as Sept. 20, the agency concluded that there hadn’t been a protest in Benghazi prior to the attack. But the daily brief for the president, the source from which top officials derive their view of what’s going on in the world, didn’t change to reflect this until the morning of Sept. 22.
By Sept. 27, the White House had changed its talking points on this sensitive issue. That day Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta at a Pentagon news conference described the killings as a “terrorist attack."
Since then, Republicans have been adamant that White House was either confused about the incident or trying to mislead the American people.
“You don’t have a riot with heavy weapons that goes on for seven hours in a preplanned fashion,” said Senator Graham.
If the White House truly believes that it was misled by CIA reports, it needs to fire somebody, said Graham. He further indicated that videos of the attack and news reports quickly indicated that it would have been difficult for the killings to have been the work of a mob, and that the White House should have taken these sources of information into account.
Obama officials have countered that they are describing the situation as they know it in a transparent manner to Congress and the public, and that the investigation into the tragedy is still unfolding.
“We’re getting to the bottom of it. And we need to work this investigation through. It’s really important that we not politicize the process,” said Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter on NBC’s “Today” show Oct. 22.
With the third and final presidential debate set to take place later Monday, self-promoter-extraordinaire and longtime Obama antagonist Donald Trump made an early morning appearance on “Fox and Friends,” claiming he had “something very, very big” to reveal concerning the president.
Naturally, Mr. Trump would not give any hints as to what this supposed bombshell might be. He only said that he would make an announcement about it sometime soon, “probably on Wednesday.”
But he promised it was big. Really big. Like, “bigger than anybody would know.” He predicted his Fox hosts “will cover it in a very big fashion.”
Of course, Trump has done this before: In the run-up to the Republican National Convention, he promised a “big surprise,” as well. In the end, the only surprise there was the appearance by actor Clint Eastwood – and we all know how that turned out. (It was later revealed that Trump had taped a video of himself “firing” the president, but when the convention was shortened by a day due to weather, the video tragically got cut.)
This time, the obvious speculation regarding Trump’s announcement is that it may have something to do with the “birther” controversy. Trump has, after all, taken on the mantle of most-prominent-conspiracy-theorist claiming Obama may not have been born in the United States. Last year, he famously made a big show of hiring a team of private investigators to look into the matter.
But even if all Trump is planning to reveal is that he’s inviting Obama to appear on “Celebrity Apprentice” – well, we suppose we've got to give him points on the psychological warfare front.
You see, on the eve of a big – and, by most accounts, critical – debate, it’s not an uncommon tactic for each side to try to “get in the other guy’s head.” Announcing that you’ve got something damaging on your opponent – but refraining from saying what, exactly, it might be – could be seen as an attempt to do just that. In this case, a clumsy, transparently obvious attempt, via an individual whose support the Romney campaign has not exactly welcomed with open arms. But an attempt, nonetheless.
Some Democrats actually think this may have been what happened to the president in the run-up to the first debate. As you may recall, the conservative Daily Caller website teased (via Drudge and Fox News) the unveiling of a “bombshell video” that turned out to be a five-year-old tape of Obama speaking to a mostly black audience at Hampton University. In the speech, Obama indicated he thought the slow response to Hurricane Katrina had been influenced by race, and he gave a shout-out to the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Most media outlets wound up dismissing the tape as old news – but the day-long buildup to the video's release was, as the Huffington Post's Jason Linkins put it, "a work of genius."
And some pundits later speculated that all the racially tinged back-and-forth over the video may have, somehow, subconsciously influenced Obama into giving a more subdued appearance at the first debate.
Now, the president is almost certainly less likely to be affected by Trump's attempts to get under his skin – since, at this point, it's practically become a regular occurrence. And Trump’s gambit may even backfire – as has much of the “birther” talk throughout the campaign – by pushing moderate independents toward the Democrats. Still, The Donald's out there trying.
This question arises, of course, because of an unusual moment from Tuesday night’s presidential debate at Hofstra University in New York. Asked a question about his position on pay equity for women, Mr. Romney zigged and talked about encouraging gender equity in Bay State government jobs after he won the governor’s chair in 2002.
“I had the chance to pull together a cabinet and all the applicants seemed to be men,” said Romney on Tuesday. “And I went to my staff and I said, ‘How come all the people for these jobs are all men?’ ”
After his staff said the résumés reflected people with qualifications for the posts in question, Romney pushed them to expand their search, according to his debate-night account.
“I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks?’ ” said Romney. “And [they] brought us whole binders full of women. I was proud of the fact that after I staffed my cabinet and my senior staff that the University of New York in Albany did a survey of all 50 states and concluded that mine had more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America.”
Now, we’re not going to evaluate “women in binders” as an Internet meme that’s got Twitter in a twist. Lots of other people have done that. Nor are we going to talk about the political importance of the women’s vote in general.
Instead we’re going to try to evaluate what’s known about those binders. Because they were real.
Romney wasn’t the driving force behind their compilation, however. He misspoke about that. Instead, the instigator here was a nonprofit group called the Massachusetts Government Appointments Project, or “MassGAP” for short.
MassGAP is a nonpartisan coalition of 25 women’s groups dedicated to what it sees as the underrepresentation of women in top appointed jobs in Massachusetts government, according to its website. In 2002, it approached the gubernatorial campaigns of Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat Shannon O’Brien and asked them to commit to a series of steps intended to boost female representation in top ranks.
“Both campaigns made a commitment to this process,” according to a MassGAP statement on the “binders” brouhaha.
After Romney won, MassGAP set up committees for each post in the new administration, and recruited and interviewed potential female applicants. It compiled this information in binders and sent it along to Romney’s transition team. You can even see a picture of one of them at the link for the MassGAP statement, above.
“To be perfectly clear, Mitt Romney did not request those résumés,” said Jesse Mermell, former MassGAP executive director, during a conference call arranged by the Democratic Party.
But he did use them. He reached out to business contacts for possible female appointees, as well, said his lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey, in an Associated Press interview. Before the 2002 vote, women accounted for about 30 percent of appointed senior-level Massachusetts government positions. By 2004, 42 percent of new Romney appointments were women, according to MassGAP.
And Romney’s right that a 2004 study by the State University of New York found Massachusetts to be first in the nation in the percentage of women in top government jobs.
That study might be a bit misleading in that the overall numbers of appointive positions in the Bay State are quite small compared to, say, California, or New York itself. The total number of women at the top in these states’ governments was quite likely larger, even if the percentage of women was smaller.
And Romney’s appointment of women to open posts declined as his term went along. From 2004 to 2006, the percentage of newly appointed women in senior jobs dropped to 25 percent, according to MassGAP figures.
What do women want?
Aside from not being relegated to binders (just kidding!), the answer to that question, it seems, may very well determine the outcome of the presidential election. And so far, President Obama and Mitt Romney are banking on very different sets of priorities held by the women they’re hoping to win – by which we mean primarily blue-collar, suburban so-called “waitress moms,” who are economically strapped but also tend to be socially moderate on issues like abortion.
Mr. Romney is hoping that those women care, first and foremost, about jobs and the economy. Although he’s been trying to modulate his stance on issues like abortion, saying in a recent interview that he did not know of any anti-abortion legislation he would push for, he’s really urging women to put so-called “women’s issues” on the back burner and vote instead for the candidate they think would do the most for the economy and job creation.
Tellingly, a new Romney ad features a mom talking into the camera about how Romney “doesn’t oppose contraception at all,” and believes abortion “should be an option in cases of rape, incest, or to save the mother’s life.” She continues, as the camera shows her kids doing their homework: “This issue is important to me. But I’m more concerned about the debt our children will be left with. I voted for President Obama last time. But we just can’t afford four more years.”
Mr. Obama, on the other hand, is counting on those “women’s issues” being a top priority for many female voters. And he routinely makes the point that they often are economic issues – equal pay is clearly a pocketbook matter, and paying for your own birth control, if insurance won’t cover it, is a not-insignificant expense for many women.
As for abortion, well, the Obama campaign has a new ad out responding to the above-mentioned Romney ad by showing footage of Romney in a GOP primary debate, being asked: “If Roe v. Wade was overturned and Congress passed a federal ban on all abortions, would you sign it?” Romney responded: “I’d be delighted to sign that bill.” The spot concludes: “Ban all abortions? Only if you vote for him.”
The question is, which argument is more likely to succeed?
According to a recent Gallup poll of women voters in 12 swing states, Obama may have an edge: When asked what they viewed as the “most important issue for women in this election,” the top response by far was abortion, at 39 percent. That was followed by jobs (19 percent), health care (18 percent), the economy (13 percent), and equal pay (15 percent).
However, it’s worth noting that it's unclear which side of the abortion issue those women who chose it as "most important" fall on. And since the question specifically asked women about the most important issue “for women,” not just the most important issue overall, it may have directed respondents to think more specifically about “women’s issues” than they otherwise would have. A previous Gallup poll asking women which issues they viewed as most important found health care was the top response, followed by the deficit and the national debt.
All of which probably means the verdict is still out.
For most of this campaign cycle, rocker Bruce Springsteen had indicated he would sit this one out. He had campaigned for President Obama in 2008, and for John Kerry in 2004, and he told The New Yorker over the summer that he felt whatever political capital he had “diminishes the more often you do it.”
But sometime in the past few weeks, he changed his mind – a sign, perhaps, that the race has gotten too close for comfort. On Thursday, the Boss will appear in the all-important swing state of Ohio with former President Bill Clinton, and then head to Iowa, another critical battleground.
He’s also drawing attention for an open letter he posted on his website explaining why he’s supporting Mr. Obama.
Now, as we’ve written before, we’re skeptical about just how much impact celebrity endorsements really have – and in general, we tend to sympathize with those saying, “who cares what one famous person thinks?”
But Springsteen’s letter is an interesting read – if only because it seems to encapsulate the struggle that many Obama supporters seem to be having this cycle. While it’s a clear endorsement, it comes across as an almost heavy-hearted one. He writes:
“This presidential election is different than the last one because President Obama has a four-year record to run on. Last time around, he carried with him a tremendous amount of hope and expectations. Unfortunately, due to the economic chaos the previous administration left him with, and the extraordinary intensity of the opposition, it turned into a really rough ride.”
A really rough ride. Not exactly the phrasing the Obama campaign would have chosen, but he gets points for honesty. And in a way, the letter expresses a kind of clear-eyed realism. Not only have the past four years been a struggle – but what the president seems to be promising for the next four often sounds like a continuing battle for more incremental progress and hard-fought gains.
To be sure, Springsteen credits the president for a number of accomplishments – from the Affordable Care Act to the auto bailout to the killing of Osama bin Laden. And, without naming Mitt Romney, he makes it clear he believes Mr. Romney would be a far worse alternative – particularly when it comes to the issue of income inequality. “Right now, there is a fight going on to help make this a fairer and more equitable nation,” Springsteen writes. “For me, President Obama is our best choice to get us and keep us moving in the right direction.”
But even that line tacitly acknowledges that not enough has been done on that point so far. Unlike the giddy sense of possibility that defined Obama’s 2008 campaign, this time around his supporters have few illusions. If they rode into office on a wave of “hope” and inspiration, this time around, it's more like they're plodding ahead in a gritty, albeit determined, slog.
As Springsteen writes: “We’re still living through very hard times but justice, equality and real freedom are not always a tide rushing in. They are more often a slow march, inch by inch, day after long day.”
When did President Obama label as “terror” the attack that killed the US ambassador to Libya? This issue has become one of the most contentious to arise out of Tuesday night’s presidential debate at Hofstra University. That’s because it involved a tough question, a heated response, a lunge counterattack, and then intervention by controlling authority. (It sounds Shakespearean when we summarize it that way, doesn’t it? As if it’s a lost scene from “Hamlet” or “King Lear.”)
This dramatic exchange began when moderator Candy Crowley asked Mr. Obama whether Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was responsible for any US failures that led to the assault in Benghazi, which killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Obama replied – as he had to in that circumstance – that as president the buck stops with him.
Then he added this: “The day after the attack ... I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people and the world that we were going to find out exactly what happened. That this was an act of terror, and I also said that we’re going to hunt down those who committed this crime.”
After a few more lines from Obama, Mitt Romney pounced. Pacing the stage like a big fish that thinks it’s spotted a tasty herring, the former Massachusetts governor repeated Obama’s assertion that he’d used the word “terror” in the Rose Garden.
“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,” said Mr. Romney.
Snap. Just like that the herring turned into a lure, and Romney got caught.
“Get the transcript,” said Obama.
Moderator Crowley, who had access to the transcript in question, stammered out this: “He did in fact sir ... call it an act of terror.”
“Can you say it a little louder, Candy?” said Obama.
OK, that’s the set-up. Going back and looking at the transcript ourselves, Ms. Crowley was right. The day after the deadly assault the president stood outside at the White House and among other things said that “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.”
Plus, Obama repeated variations of this line at two fundraisers the next day. So, in a narrow sense, Romney was wrong. The word “terror” was part of Obama’s language about the attack from the first.
But in a larger sense Romney isn’t wrong. It took weeks for the administration to state clearly that the attack was a particular act of terrorism carried out by radical Islamists. Crowley made this point during the debate, too, but it got overshadowed by the reaction to Romney bungling the attack.
Crowley clarified this in interviews following the Hofstra rumble. For a long time, administration officials kept insisting that the attack was the outgrowth of protests about a US-made anti-Islamic video, she said on CNN afterward. References to “terror” were general, and details were vague.
Romney “was right in the main. I just think he picked the wrong word,” said Crowley.
For instance, during an appearance on ABC’s “The View” on Sept. 25, Obama himself declined an opportunity to label the assault as terrorism. He said instead that “there is no doubt that the kind of weapons that were used, the ongoing assault, that it wasn’t just a mob action.”
Evidence now points to an organized attack by heavily armed members of a local Islamic militia.
Finally, we’ll take this a step further: Is arguing over word choice missing the point? You call it “terror,” I call it “potato” – the real issue is why the US did not see the attack coming and move to prevent it. Was there intelligence chatter about a possible attack tied to the date Sept. 11? Why didn’t the ambassador have more security guards? What do we know about the motivations of the attackers? (According to New York Times interviews with locals, for instance, the militia in question was indeed outraged over the anti-Muslim video.)
That’s a larger and more important argument to get into. And what do you know – there’s another debate next week that focuses on foreign policy. We bet this subject comes up. Quickly.