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Moving Beyond Benghazi Moment

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama on stage at the first presidential debate. October 4, 2012.

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama on stage at the first presidential debate. October 4, 2012. Photo courtesy of Voice of America, PD.

Tonight’s final presidential debate should come down to one topic: Libya.

Those who watched the town hall-style presidential debate on Ocotber 16 saw the preamble. The question posed was this:

This question actually comes from a brain trust of my friends at Global Telecom Supply in Mineola yesterday. We were sitting around talking about Libya, and we were reading and became aware of reports that the State Department refused extra security for our embassy in Benghazi, Libya, prior to the attacks that killed four Americans. Who was it that denied enhanced security and why?

In short, the questioner (Kerry Ladka of Mineola, NY) wanted to know who made the decision to forego additional security measures prior to the recent terrorist attack. And, as the Washington Post rightly points out, the President essentially ducked the question.

President Obama first rallied to the defense of his diplomats, going so far as to say he knew their families. Next, he refocused the subject to highlight a questionable Republican rush to accuse in the fallout.

Romney, for his part did not press the President for an answer. Instead, the discussion descended into semantics over who said what and when, especially in the Rose Garden.

To make matters worse, debate moderator Candy Crowley stepped in and confirmed the President’s account of events. At that point, Romney could not move on quickly enough.

That moment was equal parts deft maneuvering by the President and daft framing by the Governor.

First, you have to give the President credit. The terrorist attacks in Benghazi are arguably the largest weakness on his foreign policy record. Somehow, he managed to misdirect so far as to turn a moment of vulnerability into an impressive display of executive authority. 

However, that only tells half the story. Romney’s advisors got it all wrong on this issue. The question Romney should have returned to was: “Who declined the request for additional security and why?” In so doing, he could imply negligence on the part of the administration. Instead, Romney went with a focus on the aftermath. This was a mistake in a number of ways.

One, it reminded people that the Romney campaign decided to openly question the President on the day of the attacks. Many saw that at the very least, as a breach of decorum.

Second, Romney framed his response in a way that focused on details. He brought up the time it took to correctly label the event. Then, he mentioned the YouTube video and those in the administration who over-estimated its significance.

Third, the Governor got a few facts wrong as the moderator pointed out.

The mistakes were too profuse for an experienced politician like the President to miss. Obama was able to swivel from questions over his actions beforehand, to the Governor’s derogatory remarks after. Further, the overly specific nature of Romney’s affronts allowed the President to drill so far down as to put the audience to sleep. By the time he brought them back, Obama was ready to go on the offensive and defend the veracity of his statement in the Rose Garden.

As a result, the Republican nominee was left scratching his head. How had he let his largest advantage in international policy get turned against him?

Fast forward a week and you have a whole night dedicated to foreign policy. Afghanistan, Pakistan and China are on the agenda. The Iranian nuclear issue will also be discussed in great detail. You will likely also hear the President make repeated references to the assassination of Osama Bin Laden.

Undoubtedly the Libyan issue will be brought up yet once again. Obama will want to focus on the successful deposition of Gaddafi. Conversely, Romney should constantly look to on the run up to the terrorist attack in Benghazi. Conversely, should the candidates get back to who said what and when – that will mark a second missed pitch for the Republicans, and that could lead to a disastrous outcome.

Given a second chance, can the Republican nominee press his advantage? The stakes could not be higher. On a night which otherwise plays into Obama’s strengths, this will be Romney’s biggest chance to secure a victory. 

Tony Lucadamo serves as Sr. Editor for the Virginia Policy Review. He is a Master's candidate studying at the University of Virginia's Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.

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