One of the most anticipated topics in this week’s presidential debate was the terrorist attack on our U.S. consulate and murder of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya. Many analysts were curious how President Obama could possibly defend the way his administration cited phony players and motives in the attack (a spontaneous mob angered by a YouTube video), when they knew all along that it had been committed by terrorists as part of a coordinated effort on the anniversary of 9/11.
Though the topic didn’t come up until surprisingly late in the debate, it did come up. And when it did, Mitt Romney had a good opportunity to nail the president on his refusal to label the violence as an act of terrorism until weeks after the event. There was only one problem: Soon into Romney’s charge, debate moderator Candy Crowley substantiated President Obama’s assertion that, on the day after the attack, the president used the term act of terror when speaking about the incident. This clearly threw Romney off his game, and led to some quibbling back and forth between Obama and Romney before Crowley shut down the topic all together, and the president was effectively let off the hook. Viewers could read the relief in Obama’s eyes when the topic was changed. Who can blame him? He dodged quite a bullet.
Crowley has since taken a lot of heat from mostly conservative commentators, and I do think she certainly deserves some criticism. However, I don’t believe this was a case of media bias, as many are charging. I think she made the honest mistake, as consequential as it was, of trying to break down the semantics of the argument, instead of letting the candidates engage in the merits of the argument itself. For the most part, she did a fine job of moderating. Did she blow it on Benghazi? Yes. Was it a concerted effort to rescue President Obama? I don’t think so.
You see, President Obama did use the term “acts of terror” in his speech on September 12th. The problem is that he didn’t use it in reference to the attack in Libya. It was a passive reference, spoken in general terms to explain historical, American resolve in the face of tragedy. There’s certainly been a conscious effort by the Democrats to retroactively contort the president’s words into a condemnation of the people who carried out the Benghazi attack, but that’s not at all what he did.
The far more important issue was the conduct of the Obama administration over the two weeks following the attack. We now know that the U.S. government knew from the onset that the attack on our consulate was committed by terrorists. So what happened during those next two weeks? President Obama was asked directly and repeatedly if terrorism was to blame. Each time, he claimed that he didn’t know. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, was sent out on five Sunday morning talk-shows, five days after the attack, and repeated the story that the attacks stemmed from an overzealous mob. Both President Obama and Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, blamed the infamous anti-Islam YouTube video for inciting the violence. None of that was true. There was no mob. There was no influence from the YouTube video because no one knew of its existence.
Yet, because Candy Crowley mangled the issue, President Obama escaped having to answer for any of that in Tuesday night’s debate. The media should not let the president off the hook for this, but if ABC News’ George Stephanopoulous is of any indication, they may very well do just that. Wednesday, on Good Morning America, Stephanopoulous repeatedly tried to convince guest Paul Ryan that the controversy is essentially now a dead issue for the GOP ticket, due to the debate exchange. I can’t say that I’m surprised.
To her credit, Crowley did concede, in an interview immediately following the debate, that Mitt Romney was right. She expressed misgivings in distracting from the issue, and she verified that the Obama administration did indeed avoid linking the Libya attack to terrorism by misdirecting the media and the public. Unfortunately, that’s not the news coming out of the debate.
Rather than a president publicly being held accountable for what was a clear cover-up of a serious failure, the post-debate headline is that all important question of what Mitt Romney really meant by “binders full of women.” How anyone can feel proud to wear the title of “Journalist” in this environment, I’ll never know.