What about Benghazi?

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The final presidential debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama is over, and so of course questions are being raised.

First, why hasn’t Mitt gone harder at the President on what happened at Benghazi, and what happened in its aftermath?

This one is has a several-part answer. Each is very justified on what we know of Mitt having watched him campaign over the last year.

First, Mitt’s core focus has been on independent voters and undecideds. All you need to do is look at the polls since the first debate to see the success of this in action. Mitt’s strategy has assumed that the base is secure. That, in the words of someone on Twitter today, we know who he is and we’ll crawl on broken glass to the polls, whether it be an affirmative vote for Romney or a vote against Obama. Either way, the Republican base is enthused.

Second, contrast this to the Democratic base. Here’s a well-remembered image after the first debate in Denver:

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Chris Matthews was insistent that night that the President needed to go after Mitt Romney, to get out the knives, as it were. That may rile up the base – as it did in the VP debate, and the town hall – but it turns off independents and undecideds in droves.

Third, this is, was, and always shall be an election decided on the President’s performance in bringing about an economic recovery. or lack thereof. Short of a nuclear exchange, Benghazi unfortunately pales in comparison to severe structural unemployment, crushing debt, and those elements of national (and personal) economic security vital to our daily lives. The Luntz panel last night confirmed this – while they thought Obama had the measure of the night’s debate, they still felt that economic issues were paramount, and that Romney’s message there was strongest of the two.

As a result of all this I’m not surprised to see Mitt play soft on Benghazi or on a number of other issues.

Undecided and Independent voters love a candidate who throws off a bipartisan air. In 2008, that was Barack Obama. The seas would lower. And gridlock would end. Then after assuming office and reminding the opposition “I won”, he passed a partisan health reform law.

Through all the mud of the primaries and the general election, Mitt has projected himself as the new home for disaffected Obama voters from 2008. You don’t do this with a bludgeon. Frankly, Mitt could make as direct and forceful an argument about Benghazi as he did in the town hall debate about the President’s economic performance. That being said, something – the polls, or just a feel for how little the Independents and undecideds have gone for the grin and interrupt express the last three debates – says to Romney to keep this powder dry in the most public forums. Frankly, that takes a lot of courage. Many of us would be happier, more content, to fire all cannons, to leave little behind. But those of us who know about Benghazi, we’ve already made up our minds. Those who haven’t made up their minds, to the extent they’ve heard about Benghazi, aren’t going to be swayed on their vote by anything short of a full-audio version of the drone flyover video – and that won’t fit into the structured format of the debate. Those who can be swayed will most likely be swayed by the economic argument, by the “can I see him as President?” argument.

Each of these were won in the first debate, in principle, and confirmed in this Foreign Policy debate, in two statements by Governor Romney:

  • First, that we can’t kill our way to success in the Middle East;
  • Second, that the economic security of the country is intimately tied to Foreign Policy, and vice versa.
  • In so doing Romney further confirmed the perspective of competence he laid out in the first debate for Independent voters. As I’ve discussed since the start of this blog, Independents may be only 26 or 27 percent, but they’re always that. Win them, and you’ll win even if you’re a few points back as far as base goes. Lose them and you’re Senator McCain in 2008, or George H.W. Bush in 1992. Based on the latest polling by PPP of all entities, Romney’s gains with Independents remain strong on this front, with the President having equal weakness, driven by the number one issue: the economy.

    second, what’s left?

    Two weeks of noise. Early voting is already under way in many spots. Getting the base out is vital. So is getting those Independents sold in the first debate on the economy, reassured however necessary in the debates since that Romney and Ryan aren’t the evils painted in $100 Million in attack ads.

    Finally, will we hear anything on Benghazi from here on out until election day?

    If someone’s going to make an ad on Benghazi, it’ll be a Mitt-aligned Super PAC. Mitt keeps his hands clean, message gets out. But that’s a contingency for another day at this point, as the base is active and ready to go.

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