Romney, Obama, Libya, and Language
Date posted: Thursday, October 18, 2012
Why the modern presidential candidate must speak with absolute clarity.
Because everyone else on the Internet has already covered all the “binders full of women” jokes, let’s talk about Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s (and Candy Crowley’s!) exchange over Libya.
You’ve already seen it. Or maybe you haven’t:
I don’t think this will become an iconic, potentially election-swinging moment, a la Bill Clinton in 1992 (and by the way, one of Bill’s many legacies was on full display Tuesday night: before answering, each candidate took no fewer than five giant steps toward the questioner and looked directly into his or her soul).
But it was a strange moment. (The original question was prefaced with “we were sitting around, talking about Libya.” But of course! American productivity! No wonder the Chinese are winning!) As Anthony Resnick pointed out yesterday, “Benghazi is a no-win issue for the Obama campaign.” And yet this is the second time Romney has gotten in his own way trying to win what should be an unloseable issue for him. The first came was when he hastily criticized Obama in a blatantly political campaign statement hours after the attacks. Given that he was willing to politicize the attacks while the embassies were still smoldering, it’s no surprise he was willing to do so Tuesday night, and it’s no surprise Obama was ready for him. Was anyone else waiting for Obama to say, “Governor, besides Ambassador Stevens, do you even know the names of the slain Americans you’re trying to use for political gain?” Because you just know Romney would have been left holding his mike in his hand.
In the wake of the debate, conservatives, among them Paul Ryan, have argued that Obama was using the term “act of terror” vaguely, not specifically applying it to the embassy attacks. They’ve even convinced some non-conservatives. Glen Kessler, normally level-headed, said that while Obama did say act of terror, he did not say “terrorism.”
Right, so here is what Obama said in the Rose Garden on September 12:
Now . . .
A) This seems fairly clear. Obama’s very next sentence was this: “But we also know that the lives these Americans led stand in stark contrast to those of their attackers.”
B) It’s not like Obama’s Rose Garden speech tried to mislead or blamed the whole thing on the YouTube video; this wasn’t even mentioned.
C) As Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin pointed out, even if Obama wasn’t specifically referring to the attack in Benghazi as an act of terror on September 12, he did do so the very next day at a campaign event in Golden, Colorado:
D) Why this is so important to conservatives? Even if Romney was right, why do they view it as such a “gotcha” moment? It’s not of no consequence at all, but the more crucial questions that ought to be asked of the embassy attacks pertain to actions or inactions prior to the attacks, not post-attack wording. Ironically, this is what the questioner originally asked about, but thanks to Obama’s strong commander-in-chief the-buck-stops-here moment and Romney’s inanity, the president was able to successfully dodge the question.
The answer, I think, is related to Romney’s constant war on Obama’s fictional apology tour, as well as the notion that Obama refuses to label Islamic terrorism as such. The conservative belief seems to be that if we don’t immediately shout that terrorists are terrorists, then the terrorists will win, because that means we’re weak, and the next step after that will be Shariah law.
The problem is that the GOP can make no substantive attacks on Obama’s foreign policy, although many such avenues are available, because on almost every issue—Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, drone strikes—Romney’s proposed policies and outlook are either nearly identical to Obama’s or even more hawkish. This is why Paul Ryan was reduced to abstract vagaries in last week’s VP debate: he kept referring to the “unraveling of the Obama foreign policy,” and Joe Biden kept trying to figure out what Ryan meant by that, and Ryan couldn’t really say. If his goal was to push us closer to the point where the word “unraveling” will lose all meaning and cease to be of any use in the popular lexicon, he succeeded.
Speaking of vagaries and language losing all meaning, an astonishingly large amount of this campaign has relied on taking words out of context, hasn’t it? There was the time Romney cut an ad quoting Obama quoting John McCain four years ago. There was the whole “you didn’t build that” meme. Democrats poked fun at Romney for saying he liked being able to fire people, but at least they didn’t plan their convention around it. And you could argue, as Jon Chait somewhat has, that liberals are taking Romney’s binders comment out of context, though we’ll have to wait to see if this takes off not just on Tumblr but as a campaign ad centerpiece.
The enduring lesson for future politicians, and also for schoolchildren all across this great land, is that you must never, ever be remotely vague, or abstract, or use pronouns, or use the wrong conjugation of a word, lest your words have their entire meaning twisted or called into question. Every sentence you speak or write must be a completely self-contained idea that in no way relies on or makes reference to other nearby sentences. Only then will small businesses, which built themselves, be able to win the war on terrorist acts of terror.[pinit]