In a rare moment, I’m in complete agreement with both the conventional wisdom of the mainstream media and Republicans: the Obama campaign needs a better answer to questions about the terrorist attack on our facility in Benghazi. It was the lone weak spot in Joe Biden’s otherwise dominating performance in the Vice Presidential debate and it’s sure to come up again as savvy Republicans are trying to score political points off the issue.
I trust that the Obama campaign is working on a new answer to this question and, given their experience, I won’t preemptively doubt their approach. However, based upon my review of the story and my debate instincts tell me that Barack Obama has an opportunity to use his answer to undermine the core premise of the Romney campaign.
Conventional wisdom tells us, “if you’re explaining, you’re losing.” But if you’re dodging, you’re losing even more. The correct approach is to blend a defensive response with an offensive swipe at the opposition. If you can use that swipe to radically shift the framing of the entire debate, you’re even better off.
To recap Biden’s response, he defensively “cluttered” the issue by forcing Republicans to shy away from the “trust the commanders/intelligence in the field” mantra when he explained that the Obama administration has reported the Benghazi attack exactly as they understood it in real time from intelligence professionals. He was allowed to get away with this because Republicans are botching their attack on this point by persisting with this, “it was a cover up” angle. If the argument is, “Barack Obama failed to protect us from a terrorist attack” — which should be the argument — then whether the attack was provoked by the inflammatory YouTube video that sparked violent protests EVERYWHERE ELSE IN THE ISLAMIC WORLD THE EXACT SAME DAY or something else is irrelevant. Republicans seem hellbent on defending their conviction that insulting Islam must be redeemed from any blame that it has clouded their strategic thinking.
As for an offensive response, Biden attempted, though not forcefully, to raise the GOP budget cuts to Embassy security. It’s a great swipe because it has the benefit of being indisputably true. Representative Jason Chaffetz, one of the leaders of the GOP witch hunt on this issue admitted that he “absolutely” voted to slash funding for embassy security because he didn’t see it as a “priority.” Makes it hard to sell voters that the Obama administration failed to provide appropriate security when he asked for funds and the Republicans told him no.
But this is just a start. If President Obama really wants to shut down this issue, he should “turn” (to use a debate term for flipping an attack into an affirmative strength) the entire frame of Mitt Romney’s foreign policy theme. Mitt Romney brands his foreign policy as “No Apologies,” creating the impression of a tough, no nonsense foreign policy willing to accept the consequences of doing what’s right for America regardless of consequences. By arguing that the Benghazi attack is a terrorist response, specifically to the U.S. drone strike on former al Qaeda number two Sheikh Abu Yahya al-Libi, implicitly argues that Barack Obama is to blame for provoking a terrorist response. In other words, Mitt Romney wants Barack Obama to apologize for America.
Not in so many words of course, but he is implying that “if terrorists are attacking us we’re doing something wrong.” This is actually the approach George W. Bush perfected in 2004 as he cast every terrorist plot as proof that he was succeeding rather than failing in the War on Terror. Obama can capture this with a well-delivered and forceful answer. Consider President Obama delivering an answer along these lines:
This was a tragic event, an attack on our personnel overseas that should not be politicized, but I must respond to these attacks. First, the accusation that my administration is misleading the American people is entirely false. In the fast-moving aftermath of the attack, our intelligence reports linked the attack to the violent protests happening at the exact same time across the Islamic world. As we learned more, we informed America that we now believe this was a terrorist sponsored attack in response to our killing of the number two commander of al Qaeda. Second, terrorists try to strike at our interests because they oppose our efforts to dismantle al Qaeda and bring its leaders to justice. My administration is committed to protecting our sons and daughters by seeking increased funding for defending our embassies (which Republicans including Paul Ryan blocked on partisan lines). But I will not dishonor the sacrifices of these four heroes by backing down from our strategy of rooting out and eliminating the command and control structure of al Qaeda and bringing terrorists to justice.
Romney can only respond by repeating “well we got attacked and you should have prevented it,” and Obama can sit on, “I tried to — your boy blocked it. The commitment to defeat the threat of al Qaeda places Americans in harm’s way and that’s why my administration takes so seriously the need for greater embassy security, and taking strong, potentially inflammatory action to kill or capture those who intend us harm.”
If I were an outside observer, this response marginalizes Mitt Romney as weak and reinforces Barack Obama as strong. It turns the whole foreign policy frame on its head, with Obama refusing to apologize, while Mitt Romney implicitly demands that the President apologize for the consequence of his prosecution of the War on Terror.