In a debate that mostly favored Barack Obama, one of the president’s more surprising victories came in the segment on the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, which took the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and Foreign Service Officer Sean Smith. A key issue is the timeline in terms of White House communications: did Obama identify it as a premeditated terrorist attack, or did he blame it on the bizarre anti-Muslim film that was sparking protests around the Muslim world at the time?
The segment will be remembered mostly for the response it elicited from the moderator, Candy Crowley. After Romney argued that “it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror,” Obama replied, “Get the transcript.” Crowley, hoping to settle the issue, affirmed, “He did in fact, sir”—that is, Obama did call it a terrorist attack. Sure enough, according to the White House transcript of the president’s Sept. 12 Rose Garden address on the attack, Obama said, “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.”
Sure, it was phrased passively, and sure, it came at the end of the address. But isn’t it pretty clear that Romney, in claiming that it took Obama two weeks to call the incident an act of terror, erred? Some have tried to closely parse Obama’s statement to imply otherwise, but their account is unconvincing. At Commentary, for example, Alana Goodman parsed the White House transcript to argue that Obama wasn’t referring to Benghazi in his “acts of terror” reference, but rather to the 9/11 attacks, which were also mentioned in the speech. This doesn’t hold up, given that the very next sentence mentioned Benghazi specifically.
None of this is to say that there aren’t serious unresolved questions about the tragedy in Benghazi—just that on this very narrow question, it seems clear that Crowley was in the right.
That didn’t matter to the many conservative bloggers who attacked her shortly after the debate. “Later fact checkers can clarify the dispute between the two men over Obama’s contention that his Rose Garden address on 9/12 called the Benghazi attack a terror attack,” wrote Thomas Lifson on American Thinker. “But moderator Candy Crowley entered the dispute, essentially calling Obama correct, the clearest indication of her bias.” “Romney fought hard ag President of the U.S. and Candy Crowley,” Tweeted Laura Ingraham. On Newsbusters, a site devoted to fighting “liberal bias” in the mainstream media, Matthew Sheffield wrote that “Candy Crowley is making a fool of herself, repeatedly intervening to save a floundering President Obama and showing why many Americans were rightfully suspicious of her ability to moderate a presidential debate fairly.”
This, of course, fits into longstanding complaints that CNN (and ABC and CBS and NBC and ...) suffers from left-wing bias. It’s a well-worn accusation that conservatives lobbed at Crowley before the debate even started. The right was primed to see bias somewhere in Crowley’s moderation, and she gave them something of an opportunity by intervening so assertively. It didn’t help matters that after the debate she said that Romney was “right in the main.” But as Crowley herself pointed out, immediately after her debate interjection she had further clarified that “[Obama] did call it an act of terror. It did as well take—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.” Then, to Romney: “You are correct about that.”
In the end, this seems like simply much too complicated and nuanced a debate for it to sway whatever independent voters are left—it’s hard to imagine even the most undecided voter finally shifting his or her allegiance to Romney because Obama didn’t call an act of terror an act of terror, or didn’t call it one quickly or loudly enough, or something. So this is more about the bloggers than the voters: it’s perfect grist for the political nerds online, who love these sorts of debates—and charges of bias.