Memo to Obama and Romney: leave the Benghazi terror attack alone

Giles Whittell

In the end it was about jabs, not jobs. Mitt Romney did a reasonable job of jabbing Barack Obama about the 23 million Americans who are unemployed and the difference between the current 7.8 per cent jobless rate and the 5.4 per cent rate that Obama once promised. But that probably won’t swing the swing voters Romney still needs to swing his way, especially in Ohio.

Unemployment is the elephant in the great American electoral room, but it has been factored into this very polarised race for months now – and anyway, the trend line is not heading in a helpful direction for Romney. So something much stranger and more marginal now dominates the continuing spinalysis of the second presidential debate: who said what about the assassination of a US ambassador in Benghazi on the 11th anniversary of 9/11. Both sides have messed this up. Both should leave it alone.

To summarise: on September 11 this year, Romney pounced on the condemnation by the US embassy in Cairo of an anti-Muslim film, thought then to have triggered the Benghazi attack, as evidence of an apologetic US foreign policy. Immediately the White House pounced on Romney for playing politics with dead diplomats. On the 12th, Obama said no acts of terror would shake American resolve. For the next two weeks, Administration officials resisted calling it an act of terror, preferring the anti-anti-Muslim film demonstration-got-out-of-hand (AAMFDGOOH) explanation. Team Romney, desperate for an angle of attack on Obama’s otherwise irritatingly impressive counter-terrorism credentials, sensed one at last. So last night Romney said Obama hadn’t actually called the murder an act of terror for 14 days.

Cue Obama: “Get the transcript.”

The bottom line is that Romney goofed in the debate. Obama came near as dammit to calling the attack an act of terror. This was not worth parsing. And the bigger Romney line that the Benghazi murders and a Syrian civil war is somehow an unravelling of American foreign policy is nonsense.

But the Obama Administration has goofed too. There was never anything wrong with calling an act of terror an act of terror. There was never anything to be gained by preferring the AAMFDGOOH explanation. The right response was to say “we’re not sure” until they were sure.

So. Memo to both sides: of course, regrettably, acts of terror will continue even though bin Laden is dead. Memo to Romney foreign policy advisors: bin Laden is dead. Get over it.

Read more: Debate analysis and audio dispatches from Times US correspondents

Now is the age of the geek. The leader of the free world, indeed, is a geek. Don’t be fooled by the supposed love of basketball and hip-hop; never forget that Barack Obama wears a vest and keeps his BlackBerry in a belt holster.

For this reason, Hugo Rifkind thinks that Ed Miliband, “a proud and open geek”, might just have a chance of winning the next election

The main message of Bob Woodward’s new book, The Price of Politics, is not the incompleteness of Barack Obama. It is that cutting spending and long-term government borrowing is almost impossibly hard – even in America where there is strong political pressure to restrict the size of the State.

And this is why Britain should stick to its policy of deficit cutting despite foundering economic growth, says Daniel Finkelstein

Both Republicans and Democrats appear to have concluded that their best strategy is to make their supporters feel more intensely committed and thus more likely to vote. For Mr Obama that means women, the young and African-Americans, for Mr Romney it means white working men, evangelicals, talk radio listeners and the better-off.

This is a questionable strategy. Democrats and Republicans have become more polarised and there are fewer of either of them. There has, instead, been a rise in the people that the political scientist James Stimson calls the Scorekeepers: pragmatic, coolly non-ideological, perfectly willing to shift from one party’s candidate to another. Where is the appeal to these people?

Daniel Finkelstein feels that an audacious appeal to the centre could secure the US presidency for either candidate

Whatever the niceties of economic logic, the only political defence of President Obama’s record on growth, unemployment and the economy is that things would have been much worse under a different leader. Even if true, that is not a very persuasive appeal. So the Democrats have decided to go with the “extremism” of the Republicans on social issues and to devote their convention next month to a defence of abortion rights. This is a bold strategy, but carries risks: first, polls have long shown that most Americans oppose abortion; second, many voters don’t like being confronted with the issue and tend to punish the party that forces them to think about it. That has been the Republicans for three decades; it may now be the Democrats.

John O’Sullivan, the former political speechwriter, examines the Democrats’ election strategy

The enemies of social justice are those who let debts run out of control and who oppose necessary reform. If Paul Ryan can convince people that he believes in state help, partly because of his personal experience, then people may trust him with the scalpel.

By selecting Paul Ryan as his running mate in the US presidential election, Mitt Romney might just have just bought the extra ammo he needs to close the poll gap on Barack Obama, writes Tim Montgomerie

Obama’s chances of re-election | Daniel Finkelstein

During US elections I try not to let too long go by without consulting Nate Silver and his brilliant fivethirtyeight blog.

At the moment he gives Obama a 62.7 per cent chance of winning a second term. Which accords broadly with my intuition.

That figure, by the way, equates roughly to the chance that Bayern Munich had of winning the Champions League final.

Twitter: @Dannythefink

Consult the Fink Tank

In The Independent, Donald Macintyre on life in Gaza five years after Hamas took over

Joshua Green on the curriculum of Obama’s campaign manager in Bloomberg Businessweek

Chris McGreal profiles the master biographer Robert Caro in The Guardian

In The London Review of Books, Pankaj Mishra reviews a book on the 1953 coup in Iran. British and American intelligence services conspired against the democratically elected government to prevent it nationalising Iranian oil companies

Compiled by @TomasRuta

Columns - Wednesday June 13, 2012

Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker on what Obama should do if he wins a second term

In The New Inquiry, Willie Osterweil on the institution of the secret shopper: “Marketing firms hire ‘mystery worshippers’ who pose as first-time congregants to evaluate church cleanliness, friendliness, and godliness. Mentally healthy people complain to psychiatrists of fake symptoms while carefully comparing the doctor’s behavior against a checklist. Last summer, a congressional scuffle over the federal government’s plan to send out elderly mystery patients made headlines, and while the measure ultimately failed, the U.S. has helped Pakistan deploy mystery shoppers in order to combat tax evasion.”

Jeanne Marie Laskas in GQ on what it’s like to live on an oil rig

On The Daily Beast, T.J. English speaks to the ex-girlfriends of Whitey Bulger, the captured boss of Boston’s Irish Mob

Compiled by Tomas Ruta

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