When Barack Obama and Mitt Romney got into their little back-and-forth over Benghazi last night, I tweeted that it would probably going to get more press attention than anything that happened in the debate, yet of all the topics they addressed, it may be the least relevant to which of these two would make a better president. And here we are. Think about this: the argument isn't about what sort of policy we should be pursuing toward Libya, or how we can address anti-Americanism or terrorism, or what sort of security our embassies and consulates should have. Instead, it's about which words Obama said on which day. Seriously. And you wonder why people are cynical about politics.
All along, Republicans have been acting as though within hours of the attack, had Obama said, "This was a terroristic terror attack, full of terrorizing terror," then ... what, exactly? The perpetrators would have turned themselves in? Potential al-Qaeda recruits would have said, "Hold on—this is a terrorist organization you want me to join? No thanks, buddy"?
And now that we've all been reminded that Obama did indeed use the word "terror" the day after the attacks, are we any closer to understanding what happened and what should have been done differently? Of course not. This is going to come up at Monday's debate about foreign policy, and we can be sure that Romney will have a well-rehearsed answer. And I'll bet you anything it will center, like most of what Romney says about foreign policy, not on what we as a country should do but on what we should say. Oh, Romney will insist that we must be "strong" and "resolute" (don't forget that in one of those inane primary debates, the candidates were asked to describe themselves in one word, a surpassingly idiotic question, and Romney chose "resolute").
This obsession with language is something conservatives have ramped up during the Obama years, as they seek to explain the evil that lies withing the President's heart. But it goes back farther than that—George W. Bush was constantly faulting his opponents for using the wrong words, particularly when they might "embolden our enemies" (i.e., don't criticize me, lest terrorists grow bold).
And what is Mitt Romney's primary criticism of Barack Obama on foreign policy? It's that Obama allegedly "apologizes for America" (he hasn't actually ever apologized for America, but you'll forgive me if I don't have the energy to debunk that one for the millionth time). In short, it's that Mitt Romney thinks Obama says things that aren't right. What's the problem with Obama's policy toward Israel? There's "daylight" between us and Israel! What kind of daylight? Why, rhetorical daylight. The worst kind.
Monday's debate is going to be an absolute festival of this kind of ridiculousness. Maybe if we're lucky Obama will come up with some clever way to move the discussion toward what we should do, instead of just what we should say.
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