In the now-infamous presidential debate exchange on the Benghazi, Libya attack, the snap judgment was that Mitt Romney stumbled badly, blowing a key chance to hit Obama. That things did not go his way is undeniable but the error appears to have been moderator Candy Crowley’s, not the Republican candidate’s.
In the exchange Romney seized on President Obama’s claim that on Sept 12, the day after the incident, the president referred to the incident as an act of terror. Romney jumped on this, asking Obama if what he just said was that he specifically said on Sept. 12 the attack was an “act of terror”.
“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 are saying?” Romney asked.
Obama freezes up in response to Romney’s direct question. Rather than defend himself, he says, “please proceed, governor.”
Romney then begins to go in for the kill (“I want to make sure we get that for the record”) when Crowley jumps in to say that, yes, Obama “did call it an act of terror” adding it took “two weeks or so” for the full story to come out.
Obama suddenly snaps back, chiming in, “Can you say that again, louder, Candy?” prompted applause from the audience. Romney is clearly thrown by having the moderator come in on Obama’s side and loses his train of thought. He then begins rambling and even stammering. “Am I incorrect in that regard?” he asks at one point.
Crowley then moves the debate on to the next question – to Obama’s relief (“I’m happy to do that.”).
The result is that it looks as though Crowley called out Romney for misstating what Obama said in his Rose garden speech. Twitter lit up in the wake of the exchange and before the debate was over it was being widely cited – even by conservatives – as a disaster for Romney.
There is one big problem with this analysis. Contrary to what Crowley said, Obama did not clearly say in the Rose Garden speech that the Libya attack was an “act of of terror”. The confusion comes from that fact that the president did use those words, but in a broader, more general sense. It was not specifically in regards to the Sept. 11, 2012 attack.
Here are his comments and the surrounding context:
Of course, yesterday was already a painful day for our nation as we marked the solemn memory of the 9/11 attacks. We mourned with the families who were lost on that day. I visited the graves of troops who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan at the hallowed grounds of Arlington Cemetery, and had the opportunity to say thank you and visit some of our wounded warriors at Walter Reed. And then last night, we learned the news of this attack in Benghazi.
As Americans, let us never, ever forget that our freedom is only sustained because there are people who are willing to fight for it, to stand up for it, and in some cases, lay down their lives for it. Our country is only as strong as the character of our people and the service of those both civilian and military who represent us around the globe.
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. 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.
The reference to “acts of terror” (note that it is plural) appears to be in the context of all such attacks since the original 9/11. Obama does not directly call the Benghazi attack one of those acts. The closest he comes is calling it “this terrible act” - an extremely vague label. In any event, subsequent comments by Obama and other administration officials after the Rose Garden speech continued to perpetuate the notion that this was a demonstration against a Youtube video that went out of control, not an planned attack.
Even Crowley tried to clear up the matter after the debate, telling her CNN colleagues that Romney “was right in the main. I just think he picked the wrong word.”
All that said, it was still a bad moment for Romney, debate-wise. He allowed himself to get throw off his train of thought and was not prepared to argue his point better. When Crowley joined in the result was to have Romney start to second-guessing himself and lose his footing.
That doesn’t mean it was a good moment for Obama either. He still mislead people on what he said regarding the Benghazi attack. The fact that tough question for him was deflected by a third party doesn’t exactly redeem him either.