Like just about everyone else who lives in the real world (as opposed to this one), I thought Barack Obama got the best of Mitt Romney last night. The President’s pension line about Mitt Romney’s wealth hit the Republican where it hurt. And his dig at Romney’s 47% video, saved till the end, was a nice knife twist. Add to this Romney’s weird-sounding “binders full of women” reference (I know what Romney meant to say — but it came out really oddly), and Romney’s generally annoying stage manners, and you can see why viewer polls gave the nod to Obama — although not by nearly the same margin as that awarded to Romney in the first debate. As a result, Obama’s perceived chances of winning the election went from about 61% to about 66% on the Intrade market in the last 24 hours, a 5-point boost. (By contrast, Romney’s debate victory two weeks ago generated about an 8-point dip in Obama’s perceived chances — from about 74%, to about 66%, in the two days after the Denver match-up.)
But Obama’s victory was tainted — in the same way that a football victory is tainted when a ref makes a bad call on a crucial play.
I am referring to the moment when Romney attacked Obama for not having immediately called the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi — which killed the ambassador and three others — an act of terrorism. Obama became uncharacteristically defensive on this point, and the debate turned for a few seconds into an awkward standoff on this one claim. (The video can be found here.) Then, crucially, moderator Candy Crowley jumped in and said “He [Obama] did in fact … call it an act of terror.” Obama then called out, half-comically, “Can you say that a little louder?”
And Crowley repeated the claim — but you could tell by her body language and follow-up comments that she knew, right then, she had overstepped her bounds.
She stretched her hand out to Romney, in what I perceive to be a gesture of semi-apology, and added: “It did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea of there being a riot out there about the tapes to come out.” Romney recovered as best he could, and the debate proceeded. But the damage had been done. Romney looked like he’d screwed up his facts on an issue that should have played to his advantage.
But Romney was arguably right — at least in a technical sense. Yes, Obama used the term “terror” in the Sept. 12 Rose Garden remarks that are the subject of dispute. But Obama’s use of the term was ambiguous:
Of course, yesterday [Sept. 11] was already a painful day for our nation as we marked the solemn memory of the 9/11 attacks. We mourn 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 for 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.
As others have pointed out, the fact that the word “terror” appears here does not settle the argument, because it is not clear whether Obama is using the term to describe the Benghazi attacks, 9/11 or both — or whether he was just free-styling about terrorism in general, and America’s willingness to fight it.
Reasonable people can disagree about what Obama meant to say on Sept. 12. But one thing seems clear to me: A debate moderator should interject to resolve a factual dispute only when it is 100% clear that one side is clearly wrong — such as, say, to correct a claim that Obama was born in Kenya, or that Romney still embraces discarded Mormon teachings about blacks. Romney’s remarks about Obama’s response to Benghazi did not fall into that category of clear falsehood. And the moderator was wrong to respond in the way she did.
In doing so, she gave Romney’s defenders a credible case for putting a big, fat media-bias asterisk on Obama’s otherwise clearly won victory.