The Benghazi Attack Wouldn't Have Won Mitt Romney the 2012 Election

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 10 2013 10:03 AM

It Didn't Happen Here; Or, Why Mitt Romney Was Never Going to Win the 2012 Election Over Benghazi

Mitt Romney speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland on March 15, 2013.

Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Jonathan Karl, who's owned the politics-of-Benghazi beat all week, obtains a campaign ad that the RNC designed but never released in the fall of 2012. It's simple, which lends it some emotional punch.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

Because it broke in the final stretch of the election, Benghazi was always covered as a political story—something that could beat Barack Obama. Hence the outrage over the administration's early talking points, and the questions about why "terror" was sliced out of them. "We have a pretty good gut feeling as to why the talking points were changed," said Sean Hannity after Wednesday's hearing. "It was in the heat of an election."


But why are Republicans convinced that this would have altered the election? Four Americans died in the attack in Benghazi. For the first time since the Carter administration, a diplomat was among the fallen. That was unspinnable. That did a certain amount of damage to the Obama campaign, like it should have. Where Hannity et al lose people is on the "cover-up"—why would the phrasing of talking points have ended the outrage? Why, because the administration was telling voters that the death of Osama bin Laden effectively ended the War on Terror, and that there was nothing new to fear, so we could go on not talking about "Islamism" and be perfectly safe.

This was never going to work. We learned why, not during the election, but during the weeks around the George W. Bush Presidential Center dedication. Bush, you'll remember, was president during the deadliest terrorist attack ever on American soil. Yet Bush's defenders credited him with Keeping America Safe. How? As Jennifer Rubin put it (though you could quote one of dozens of pundits), "there was no successful attack on the homeland after 9/11" while Bush was at the wheel.

This is mockable (Charlie Pierce calls it "the great mulligan") but astute. Bush got re-elected on this theory. Americans are fretful about terrorism only to the extent that it might kill them in America. The Bush-era response to terrorism led to two fitfully successful land wars in central Asia, with thousands of military deaths; more relevantly, when we're talking Benghazi, the Bush years saw 64 attacks of varying scale on American diplomats and embassies. None of them hurt his re-election. A terrorist attack of the same scale in, say, Indianapolis would have. Not overseas.

As a pure election-time issue, Benghazi reminded me of the 2004 "Rathergate" controversy. The common attack on CBS News at the time, after it ran stories about George W. Bush's National Guard service, was that it was trying to "bring down the president." That assumed a lot of voters who'd elected Bush once, knowing he'd merely served in the Texas Air National Guard during Vietnam, would be so angry at the new details that they'd reject him. Was anyone in the Obama administration, in September 2012, worried that classifying the Benghazi attack as "terrorism" would hurt their jobs? It seems that way, though I guess the president undercut them on Sept. 12 by putting the attack in the context of "acts of terror."

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics



Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?


Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
Oct. 20 2014 11:36 PM Forget Oculus Rift This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual-reality experience.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.