A case in point was Candy Crowley’s challenge to Mitt Romney on his assertions about Libya and President Barack Obama’s response to the attack on US officials in Benghazi.
It was a risky move, but on balance it increased the understanding of the American people about the facts surrounding a tragic, ugly event which has taken a central place in this campaign.
Here’s the context.
Since taking office in 2009, Obama has faced an unceasing barrage of attacks from the right, suggesting that he is “soft” on terror and has failed to use direct and deliberate language when talking about attacks by Islamic radicals.
This narrative reflects a widely held view on the right that Obama might himself be a closeted Muslim, or that he harbors secret “anti-colonial” sentiments which might lead him to intentionally weaken or humble America.
Mitt Romney has embraced this narrative on the campaign trail, accusing the president of “apologizing” for America and of neglecting ties to Israel.
After the attacks in Egypt and Libya, Romney issued a statement accusing the Obama administration of “sympathiz[ing]” with the attackers.
“It’s disgraceful that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions,” Romney argued, “but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
Before pivoting back to the specifics of this week’s debate — and Crowley’s role — let me pause to point out that these accusations are astonishing.
We’ve become inured to often extreme rhetoric about our presidents, so it’s important to remind ourselves how radical these claims have become.
A major party candidate is accusing America’s commander in chief of aligning himself, at least emotionally or philosophically, with a group that has murdered US officials in cold blood.
In the wider framing of conservative politics, the argument is even more astonishing. According to the narrative widely held among Republican voters, we have a president who hasn’t simply made policy mistakes or committed errors.
According to their narrative, Obama is actively — albeit subtly and often in secret — working against the interests of America.
Extraordinary claims warrant compelling evidence. And let me say bluntly that if there were facts to support these claims, they would represent impeachable offenses.
It’s hard to imagine a “high crime and misdemeanor” more treasonous than those conservatives suggest Obama has committed.
But the simple truth is that the facts don’t support right-wing conspiracy theories. Not even marginally. By all credible accounts, Obama has waged an extremely aggressive and lethal campaign against terror groups from the Horn of Africa to Pakistan.
Conservatives sometimes suggest that the killing of Osama bin Laden was a one-off event, a sort of accidental “get” that Obama’s administration has trumpeted unfairly.
But the killing of bin Laden came as part of a controversial campaign of highly effective assassinations and drone strikes.
There have been terror attacks on American interests on Obama’s watch, to be sure. But these have been no more frequent or effective than terror attacks that occurred during the tenures of past presidents, including Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
The suggestion that Obama has apologized for America is similarly fact-free.
The assertion has been debunked repeatedly by the Washington Post, by Politifact and by FactCheck.org. Again, this isn’t a case of gray zones or interpretation. It is simply a case of factual inaccuracy.
Which brings us, at long last, to Barack Obama’s statement about the Libya attack the day after America’s diplomatic team was attacked and murdered.
In his address from the Rose Garden (full transcript here), the president repeatedly “condemns in the strongest terms this outrageous and shocking attack.”
Note that the president didn’t say “this shocking cultural misunderstanding” or “this criminal act.” The first day after the assault, even as the facts are being gathered, Obama calls it an “outrageous and shocking attack.”
He then said this: “And make no mistake, we will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people…”going on to demand that the world community “unequivocally reject these brutal acts.”
Brutal acts. Shocking attack. Killers. Still not clear enough?
Obama then unambiguously placed the attack in Beghazi in the context of the 9/11 terror attacks, the on-going war on terror and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Here is that section of his comments, in full.
Of course, yesterday was already a painful day for our nation as we marked the solemn memory of the 9/11 attacks. We mourned with the families who were lost on that day. I visited the graves of troops who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan at the hallowed grounds of Arlington Cemetery, and had the opportunity to say thank you and visit some of our wounded warriors at Walter Reed. And then last night, we learned the news of this attack in Benghazi.
As Americans, let us never, ever forget that our freedom is only sustained because there are people who are willing to fight for it, to stand up for it, and in some cases, lay down their lives for it. Our country is only as strong as the character of our people and the service of those both civilian and military who represent us around the globe. No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.
Conservatives — embracing the skewed narrative context outlined above — have continued to insist that there is still some ambiguity here, some missing declaration of strength or purpose or loyalty.
But that tenuous framework of suspicion only holds up if you ignore the fact that Obama has, in fact, waged an astonishingly ruthless and lethal military campaign against Islamic militants — and the fact that right-wing anxiety about the president’s personal faith and cultural loyalties are not supported by any available evidence.
Of course, Crowley could have allowed this moment to slide. Americans would have been left with a false sense that there is a gray zone here, a legitimate uncertainty about Obama’s actions and words.
Many Republicans will see bias in her actions — and, no doubt, in this analysis. Obviously, I disagree.
It goes without saying that there are many aspects of Barack Obama’s foreign policy that bear scrutiny and criticism. There are important questions still to be answered about why security at American facilities in Libya wasn’t beefed up long ago.
Mitt Romney also has a clear right to say clearly and factually how his foreign policy would differ materially from Obama’s. It’s our job as reporters to make sure Americans hear about those distinctions, in a fair and factual way, so that voters can make informed choices.
But when politicians say things that are simply inaccurate, particularly when the claims are extraordinary, we have to throw the flag. Crowley made the right call.