On Libya, Winning Debate On Semantics, Missing The Point: The 2012 Speculatron Weekly Roundup For Oct. 19

President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney exchange views during the second presidential debate a
President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney exchange views during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, in Hempstead, N.Y. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

You're no Jack Kennedy. Who am I, and what am I doing here. I am paying for this microphone. Sigh, sigh, sigh.

Presidential debates have, over the years, produced many "frozen moments" that have permanently wormed their way into our cultural and political lexicon. We all have memories of a witty quip, or a tense exchange, or that time President George W. Bush asked, "Need some wood?" Sometimes we remember a moment where the civilized form of forensic combat turns into something strange -- like former Rep. Rick Lazio unexpectedly advancing into Hillary Clinton's personal space. Or we recall an instance where one competitor flusters so noticeably that we attribute the moment as the beginning of their electoral downfall -- like the aforementioned Clinton's struggle to stake out a position on New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's policy of extending drivers' licences to undocumented immigrants.

But the interesting thing about all of these examples is how little they inform anyone about what was at stake in these debates, or about what was authentically going in America. Clinton's struggle with the drivers' licence question had almost nothing to do with enunciating a sensible position on the issue -- it was Clinton, caught in a sticky trap between the governor she supported and the way his policy played with the broader electorate, unable to find the right combination of words needed to cook up a politically acceptable escape hatch. These moments, then, are sort of "pseudo" in nature -- a hard shell of importance with shiny veneer, wrapped around nothing at all.

The second presidential debate between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney yielded a classic of the genre.

ROMNEY: I -- I think interesting the president just said something which -- which is that on the day after the attack he went into the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror.

OBAMA: That's what I said.

ROMNEY: 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're saying?

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 the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.

OBAMA: Get the transcript.

CROWLEY: It -- it -- it -- he did in fact, sir. So let me -- let me call it an act of terror ...

OBAMA: Can you say that a little louder, Candy?

CROWLEY: He -- he did call it an act of terror.

For the sake of fairness, we'll point out that Crowley continued here, saying to Romney, "It did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. You are correct about that." But that line is destined to not be remembered, because this moment will be known -- perhaps forever, perhaps only until Monday's third debate, as the moment Obama smacked Romney down on Libya.

Now, we will concede that in a limited sort of way, Romney conceded some points here. But by and large, the above exchange -- an argument of who used what words when -- is brutally meaningless. That Obama gave a certain incantation in the Rose Garden, and was able to demonstrate that he had done so after Romney denied it -- that's swell. But it doesn't elucidate any reality, it doesn't confirm the wisdom or efficacy of any policy, and it doesn't provide any insight as to whatever lesson could or should be extracted from the attacks on our consulate in Benghazi. The points scored here are merely theatrical ones, over a matter that entirely lacks materiality.

But this is sort of how debates work. On Friday morning, MSNBC briefly showed a clip from the debate between Tommy Thompson and Tammy Baldwin, vying for a Wisconsin Senate seat. In that clip, Thompson interrogated Baldwin over contributions she had supposedly received from the "Council for a Living Earth." Baldwin denied she had ever received contributions from any such organization. Thompson insisted otherwise, Baldwin denied it again, et cetera. The big reveal here is that Thompson was confused -- he meant to say "Council for a Liveable Planet." Oh, boy, ha-ha, big mistake, implied MSNBC.

But if Thompson got a name wrong, so what? This sort of thing can happen to people in high-pressure situations. What point was Thompson actually trying to litigate? Was it a good point? Was it a stupid point? MSNBC either didn't know or didn't deem it worthy of telling their viewers. As it turns out, the rub was that the Council for a Liveable Planet opposes the sanctions that have been levied against Iran.

It makes you wonder, what would have happened if, in that moment, Thompson had managed to call the correct name from memory? One thing we think is likely: it wouldn't have been the moment from the debate MSNBC would have clipped. And we similarly think that if Romney had not chosen to respond to Obama's answer on Libya by getting bogged down in the semantics of the Rose Garden speech -- had he instead attempted to engage the topic in any other way -- who knows? Maybe that part of the debate would not have been shown a half-million times the next day on cable news.

Here, of course, is where we get to the part where Romney did concede some points. Obama, we'd wager, baited the hook for Romney -- pointedly bringing up what he said in Rose Garden because he knew Romney would be unable to resist countering on the matter. All the while, Obama knew that he had the goods on this (Dave Weigel has the complete exegesis of what words Obama used when) and could spring this trap. "Please proceed, Governor," said Obama, knowing that you never interrupt your opponent as they are about to make a mistake.

Romney, clearly, should have not been suckered into this pseudo-debate over semantics. There are any number of more material things to discuss about the consulate attacks and the Libyan intervention in general. So why did he naturally ease into what turned out to be a losing battle over what was said in the Rose Garden? Erik Wemple offers a compelling argument that Romney's response may have been too informed by the right-wing media, which have gone overboard on some of the more picayune matters to be discussed in the overall world of the Libyan intervention.

But the weird emphasis on "magic words" and superficial semantics has become a continual reference point in the right vs. left battle over foreign policy and war-making. Romney didn't need much prompting from Fox News -- he's internalized the war over words himself with the "No Apology" argument he's advanced throughout the campaign.

And even before Romney surged back into the newshole, the battle over who uses the more belligerent vocabulary has become a mainstay. Obama's speeches on the War in Afghanistan are subjected to the "word find" test, where his opponents search for certain terms and then try to make news about which ones didn't show up in the speech. "How can Obama talk about war without mentioning the word 'victory?'" goes a familiar refrain. But why are we talking about that at all? Any speech on Afghanistan has important goals and policies to analyze! (Does an objectively stupid strategy work any better because it includes the word "victory?" If you actually believe that, please step away from the Situation Room.)

We should be asking ourselves why the need to assess terminology for its extremity, and the way in which certain words are used on certain days, as opposed to other words on other days, has lately become something that matters so damned much. Because it seems to us that the underlying issue here is that on key matters of foreign policy and war, there is no longer any way to discern a material difference between the two sides.

What we can tell all Americans, straight up, is that if you vote for Obama, we will be in Afghanistan until 2014 and change. On the other hand, if you vote for Romney, we will be in Afghanistan until 2014 and change. And as far as our policy on Iran goes, we can discern no substantive difference between the two candidates in terms of their "red lines" or what it is we are perpetually putting "on the table" so that Iran totally knows what's what! The only clear difference is that when Romney puts the same stuff on the table, he will plop it down with a louder bang, and perhaps use a more bellicose set of vocabulary words. (We are pretty sure that if you want to vote for a candidate promising something materially distinct from any of this, you should check out what Gary Johnson and Jill Stein have to say about it.)

Rather than hype the theatrical victory that Obama scored during the debate, when he successfully parried the immaterial point of what words he used in the Rose Garden, we should extract some lessons. First, let's recognize the tendency of these candidates to go right to dumb semantic arguments, because that's the path of least resistance. Second, let's steer these discussions to better places -- or ask better questions in the first place.

We would like this query to be put to Romney, "The nation is obviously tremendously concerned with the deaths of our diplomats in Benghazi, but knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently?" We're generally curious about how Romney thinks about the matter. Would his answer start with how we would respond after an attack? Would he talk about what he would have done to prevent the attack? Would he discuss whether he would have intervened in Libya in the first place? Does his foreign policy have an entirely different set of holistic strategies that could prevent these sorts of failed-state meltdowns in the first place? And then we'd ask Obama, "Do you regret not doing more of what Romney suggested should be done?" and we'd see how Obama discussed the matter.

See, we wouldn't be looking for zingers and slams and swag -- we want to evaluate how these men approach (or would approach) a complicated problem with no perfect answers, and in what dimension they consider their answers. And we should ask the media to broadcast these larger discussions, instead of sexy frozen moments that ultimately do not inform.

One final note on this: we were a little dumbstruck by the number of people who commented that Obama had managed to definitively parry the issue or put Libya to bed. No, no! It really is more than what phrases were used in certain speeches, we're afraid. There is a whole debate coming on Monday, exclusively about foreign policy. That debate's moderator, Bob Schieffer, is absolutely going to want to earn his stripes. He will absolutely re-raise the question. If he doesn't he will be pilloried. So the matter has not been put to bed. Hopefully, Schieffer will manage to steer the discussion to more substantive grounds.

MEDITATIONS IN AN EMERGENCY: In addition to avoiding any further debates over vocabulary words, it's arguable that conceding the fact that the aftermath of a terrorist attack doesn't yield the sort of clear information that some are arguing the Obama administration should have immediately had and immediately broadcast to the country. Here's Richard Clarke, making that argument:

I dealt with scores of incidents and military operations over 30 years in the Pentagon, State Department and White House. I never saw a case where there was initial and accurate clarity about what happened.

In the case of TWA 800, the FBI thought for months that it had been shot down by a missile, only to learn much later that it was a maintenance problem that caused the fuel tank to explode. When the destroyer Cole was attacked in Yemen, it took the CIA director weeks to decide that the attackers were from Al Qaeda . The Iranian hand in the attack on the U.S. Air Force barracks at Khobar, Saudi Arabia, did not emerge for months.

News media and members of Congress may want instant answers when something explodes, when Americans die, but national security professionals know that "first reports are always wrong." That is why, when pressed by reporters to say what had happened, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice qualified her response by saying that the investigation was ongoing. She then said what the intelligence community had reported to her at that time.

There's a perfectly decent chance that Romney could get elected. If so, he'll inevitably have crises of his own to deal with -- perhaps even tragedies. Knowing that, it would seem pretty unwise for him to box himself in and present himself as the guy who'll head an administration that will cut through the inevitable chaos and fog and deliver clear explanations within 24 hours of an emergency. But if that's what Mitt wants to do, we'll be happy to hold him to that standard.

HOW TO LOSE AN ARIZONA SENATE RACE: So, Richard Carmona was the Democrats' best hope at maybe prying away an Arizona Senate seat from the GOP. And fairly recently, he's been able to brag about the occasional edge in polling and fundraising. But his opponent, Representative Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has taken a swing at Carmona's reputation with some brutal attack ads that suggested Carmona had a mean, misogynist streak.

Basic rule of politics: Don't confirm what your opponent implies about you in his attack ads! But here was Carmona, in Thursday night's debate:

After a difficult stretch in the debate, moderator Brahm Resnik quipped "Geez, now I know how Candy Crowley felt."

"You're prettier than her," Carmona responded, eliciting a nervous laugh from the moderator. "I'm not sure how to take that," he then said.

We're not precisely sure how to take that either, but it's somewhere in the range of "not well" and "badly."

And that's how you lose a Senate race in Arizona.

RETHINKING 'BINDERS FULL OF WOMEN': The whole world had fun with Mitt Romney's "binders full of women" statement, making it all but certain this Halloween, there will be about seventeen "binders full of women" at every party you attend, with each person so bedecked believing that it was their super-creative, original idea. But Amanda Hess would ask you to rethink this a little bit, saying, "Amazingly, Romney is now being criticized for the idea that achieving parity in political appointments requires effort."

I agree that Romney's positions on health care, contraception, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act will do nothing to help women in jobs across America. Binders stocked with intelligence on top-shelf female candidates, though? I'm cool with those. In a rush to discredit Romney's position entirely, commenters are strangely spinning his underlying point--when female candidates don't apply for jobs, employers should find them, and hire them about half the time -- as somehow anti-feminist.

"Binders full of women mean cabinets full of women," argues Hess. And she's correct. The real problem with Romney's story is that he's mischaracterizing himself as the person who "went to a number of women's groups" to obtain those binders. That is not true.

ELECTORAL PROJECTION: It's time once again for your Speculatroners to end the week with our trademarked Electoral College projection, which is -- as always -- a mix of careful poll study, analysis of prevailing economic trends, pundit speculation, and PURE ANIMAL PANIC. Sweet, sweet, freaking right-the-hell out, over the Gallup polls, specifically!

We have panic on the streets of Madison! Panic on the streets of Pittsburgh! Oh, will life ever be same again, on these rolling poll averages we track down? We wonder, to ourselves.

Now, every sane person who writes about what's going on in the polls has cautioned their readers to keep an eye on poll averages, remember that the fundamentals dictate a close race, and that, frankly, both Romney and Obama have a good chance of winning. But what if we tuned out the experts and went full nigh into utter madness? Well, then we'd give every toss-up and near toss-up to Romney and basically declare the election over. So, in a one-time denial of good sense and cool reason, we'll just give you a map that reflects what the world looks like when we let Gallup freak-out guide our senses. Some of you will love this! Others, not so much.

Whence is that knocking? How is't with us, when every noise appalls us? What hands are here? Hah! They pluck out thine electoral votes. Will all great Nate Silver's models wash this blood clean from our map? No! This our map will rather make the multitudinous states incarnadine, making the blue ones red!

electoral projection october nineteen



Second Presidential Debate Photos