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

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

On Mormonism, there are three sorts of questions that should be put forcefully to Mitt Romney at the Republican National Convention. The first is about the sheer weirdness of the founding beliefs and the sense in which he really embraces them. The second is the Church’s long history of racism and sexism, as well as its censorious ideas about the terms on which poor people qualify for community help. The third, with the most immediate implications, is whether the Church’s conviction that its members are direct descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would make him more likely to attack Iran over its nuclear programme.

Bronwen Maddox thinks that Mitt Romney is getting too easy a ride over his Mormonism

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

This is a presidential candidate on a trip designed to bolster his foreign policy credentials, who is literally next door to the greatest foreign policy crisis of the new decade. And, as the fire rages down on Aleppo, he apparently has nothing to say about it at all. No criticism of Russia, no gesture of support for Turkey. No half-sentence about arming rebels, or not arming rebels, or UN resolutions, or anything. Look, I’m not saying it’s easy, but damn it man, you’ve got to say something.

Is Mitt Romney a hawk or just a tactless weirdo? Hugo Rifkind ponders the question

Background here.

Mitt Romney arrives at 10 Downing Street earlier today. The Republican presidential candidate ruffled a few feathers soon after arriving in England, suggesting that London might not be prepared for the Olympics. The Prime Minister and Mayor of London later rebuffed him.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney arrives in London tomorrow. He’ll meet the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and a former Prime Minister (among others) and he’ll attend the Olympics opening ceremony on Friday.

But then he’ll get down to business: Mr Romney is here primarily to boost his campaign coffers. At a cost of up to $75,000 a ticket, London-based American bankers are joining him at a series of fundraising dinners.

Some Barclays bankers will be in attendance, which has caused unease among a few MPs. They have used a parliamentary motion to call on Barclays executives “to cease fundraising for political candidates immediately and to concentrate entirely on repairing confidence and trust in the banking system instead”.

(And before anyone asks: No. Romney Street was around many, many years before Mitt Romney)

Magazine Rack | CIA v KGB, The Shard, Romney’s accounts & razing Palestine

CIA veteran Milton Bearden remembers his KGB nemesis in Foreign Policy

Simon Jenkins doesn’t like The Shard, in The Guardian

Nicholas Shaxson on Mitt Romney’s offshore accounts, in Vanity Fair

In The New York Review of Books, David Shulman on razing Palestinian villages in the West Bank

Compiled by @TomasRuta

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