President Obama won the second debate against Mitt Romney last night by managing to defend elements of his first term record and articulate a second term agenda, while his opponent struggled with specifics and was haunted by the spectre of George W. Bush, who he probably thought was disappeared for electoral purposes in this country.
We’ll get into other aspects of the debate later, the good and the bad, and the caveat must be made that there’s pretty much always a variance between rhetoric and action among approximately all politicians. But for starters, let’s focus on the key takeaway moment of the debate, not for what it illuminated about the particular issue but because it served as a microcosm for this campaign and American politics in the 21st century in general.
President Obama must have expected a question on the Libya attack, which the Romney camp previewed by saying he would tell the President to “man up” and take responsibility. Obama pre-empted that by stating that “I am ultimately responsible for what’s taking place there because these are my folks, and I’m the one who has too greet those coffins when they come home.” Romney followed up with a meandering answer that tried to fit in his entire foreign policy critique of the President, which is mostly stylistic, that the President “shows weakness” and “apologizes for America,” amorphous concepts that are not grounded in any actual policy differences. But Romney added one clean hit. “There were many days that passed before we knew whether this was a spontaneous demonstration or actually whether it was a terrorist attack,” he said. Here’s how the President responded, and the rest of this crucial exchange (which probably looks better in video form, above, than it reads):
PRESIDENT OBAMA: The day after the attack, Governor, 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. And then a few days later I was there greeting the caskets coming into Andrews Air Force Base and grieving with the families, and the 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.
CANDY CROWLEY: Governor, if you want to reply quickly to this please.
GOVERNOR ROMNEY: I think it’s interesting the President just said something which is that on the day after the attack he went to the Rose Garden and said this was an act of terror.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: That’s what I said.
GOVERNOR ROMNEY: You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack it was an attack of terror. It was not a spontaneous demonstration?
PRESIDENT 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 it an attack of terror.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Get the transcript.
CANDY CROWLEY: He did in fact, sir, let me call it an act of terror.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Can you say that a little louder, Candy?
CANDY CROWLEY: He did call it an act of terror. It did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea of there being a riot out there about this tape to come out, you’re correct about that.
There’s one other important element not labeled in the transcript that I will come back to later. But first, on the substance. You can read the remarks by the President on the deaths of the four Americans in Benghazi, from the next day. Indeed, the President says, reacting to the attack, “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.”
Like Josh Marshall, I’m borderline nauseated about the silly, totemic quality afforded to the word “terror” in this respect, as if it’s a magic shield that by its very utterance projects resoluteness and leadership. Whether this was called a terrorist attack immediately or once the evidence came rolling in doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. You don’t get cookies and milk for saying “terrorism” first. I also think there’s reason to criticize the White House’s post-attack handling to an extent.
But on this narrow point, the facts are the facts, and that’s what this sequence was all about. Throughout the campaign, Mitt Romney has developed a hate-hate relationship to facts, altering or outright ignoring them to suit his needs. Here, he actually thought he caught the President in a lie, or at least in a lie as he sees things in his right-wing radio funhouse mirror of the universe, and he let ‘er rip. But this was the key point. After Obama says “Get a transcript,” and you think this will have to play out later in dueling fact-checks, Candy Crowley gets involved. She corrects the record, the way a journalist might, coming in on the side of the truth. And that’s what prompted the audience, made up of 80-odd undecided voters, to cheer. They cheered because it’s been so long since a media figure decided not to balance an argument with the utmost objectivity, but to actually call balls and strikes. The audience cheered a media personality doing her job, paying attention and forcing a politician to reckon with the truth rather than bluster on with his talking point. It’s so rare, the public is so starved, that they let out a burst of spontaneous emotion.
Right-wing hacks are trying to spin this as if Obama just generically brought up acts of terror in the Rose Garden in the context of a speech about the Benghazi attacks as if the two had no relationship whatsoever. That’s not going to fly.
And the sequence was all the more resonant because of the way in which Romney has played fast and loose with the facts throughout the campaign, and throughout last night’s debate. There was a cathartic quality to him finally getting his comeuppance.
But ultimately, this represented an expression of gratitude to a Beltway journalist actually sticking with the truth instead of allowing the predictable he said/she said. More of that and we’ll actually creep closer to a functioning democracy.
UPDATE: And John Dickerson reminds us why we won’t have a functioning democracy. Transcripts are now he said/she said. Congratulations, guys.
…Crowley couldn’t take actually being right, either. What a country.
UPDATE II: Obama also used the same line in a speech in Colorado September 13. But I guess it was just a cliche then too.