HEMPSTEAD, N.Y.—In unhappier days, when Mitt Romney spoke to Florida donors in view of a hidden camera, he reminisced about all the fun Ronald Reagan had when he ran against Jimmy Carter.
“The fact that we have hostages in Iran, I mean, that was all we talked about,” said Romney. “And we had the two helicopters crash in the desert, I mean that's—that was—that was the focus, and so him solving that made all the difference in the world.” What sort of foreign policy crisis might break out in 2012? Whatever it was, “if something of that nature presents itself, I will work to find a way to take advantage of the opportunity.”
Romney got that opportunity on Sept. 11. Islamic militants attacked the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. It was, as Republicans would quickly point out, the first murder of an ambassador since the Carter years. The Romney campaign bobbled its first response, putting out a statement that claimed the administration “sympathized” with the attackers—the American embassy in Egypt had condemned a remarkably dumb video satire of Mohammed, which protesters in that country cited as their pretext.
But in the weeks since, Romney and Republicans and the conservative media got more facts. Reporters revealed that the Benghazi consulate had asked for more security, that Stevens himself had said this on the day he died. The president’s surrogates held back on calling the attack “terrorism.” The story became “Benghazi-gate,” a tale of cover-ups and—in a phrase mimeographed by Romney spokesflacks like Dan Senor—“the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy.”
And then it came up in a debate—and Romney whiffed. Kerry Ladka, one of the undecided voters chosen for the town hall forum, said that his “brain trust” had come up with a question: “Who was it that denied enhanced security and why?” The president gave a pat answer that Republicans were ready for him to give: He had immediately scrambled to investigate the attack, and “we are going to find out who did this, and we are going to hunt them down.”
Romney rose and ambled slowly toward an answer. “I—I think the president just said correctly that—that the buck does stop at his desk,” he said, “and—and he takes responsibility for—for that—for that—the failure in providing those security resources, and those terrible things may well happen from time to time.” He didn’t point out, as he could have, that the commander-in-chief had just dodged Ladka’s question. He said that Obama’s decision to proceed with a Sept. 12 fundraiser had “symbolic significance, and perhaps even material significance.”
Obama was ready for this, too. “The day after the attack, Governor, I stood in the Rose Garden, and I told the American people and the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened, that this was an act of terror.”
Romney saw an opening to embarrass the president. He homed in on him. “You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack it was an act of terror,” he said. “It was not a spontaneous demonstration.”
Obama and Romney coolly exchanged fire over whether the statement was true, whether Obama had said this in the Rose Garden. It wouldn’t be hard to check, really. But moderator Candy Crowley threw the flag. “He did call it an act of terror,” she said. Romney was ready to debate Libya, but not to debate, with a moderator, the wording of one sentence on Sept. 12. The exchange, as most viewers would see it, was lost.
Republicans were dumbfounded. When the debate ended, I found Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who was standing mostly alone in the spin room. His House Oversight and Government Reform committee had been demanding Libya documents, publishing what it got from whistle-blowers, and bringing diplomats in to testify about the administration’s failure. He held a copy of a Sept. 18 press conference transcript, in which Jay Carney failed to call the Benghazi killings “terrorism.” He’d marked it up in blue pen during the debate.