Should we be getting so worked up about Romney’s Libya stumble?

Should we be getting so worked up about Romney’s Libya stumble?

BuzzFeed has called it the "moment where Barack Obama won the debate." MSNBC‘s Rachel Maddow dubbed it a "political disaster" for Mitt Romney. National Review‘s Jim Geraghty described it as "one of the most egregious misjudgments of any moderator in the history of presidential debates."

During Tuesday night’s presidential debate, moderator Candy Crowley corrected Romney when he pounced on Obama for claiming that he’d cdescribed the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi as an act of terror. "He did call it an act of terror," Crowley noted to applause and Obama’s delight. Romney retorted that it had taken a long time for the administration to describe the assault as a terrorist attack rather than a spontaneous reaction to an inflammatory film.

Within hours, political observers were characterizing the exchange as a pivotal moment in the campaign — a gaffe for the history books. Romney "was even held accountable by Candy Crowley for not telling the truth about the president acknowledging an act of terror," Senator John Kerry (D-MA) noted. "I think tonight Mitt Romney’s campaign fell away."

Political Wire‘s Taegan Goddard, meanwhile, compared Romney’s misstep to Gerald Ford’s famous declaration during a 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration." Here’s Goddard:

[Romney] scored many points. But he lost most of them by not knowing his facts on what President Obama said the morning after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya. Obama acted like a president in the exchange while Romney was much less. It was Romney’s Gerald Ford moment.

Over at the New York Times, Andrew Rosenthal went a step further, likening Romney not just to Ford but to George H.W. Bush: 

When George H.W. Bush looked at his watch in a 1992 debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot and absolutely bungled a question about how the national debt had affected him personally, he cemented the impression that he was out of touch with real Americans’ lives.

When Gerald Ford denied in 1976 that there was any "Soviet domination" of Eastern Europe, he cemented the impression that he was out of touch with pretty much everything….

Tonight, Mitt Romney may have had a similar moment, during a back-and-forth about the attack on the Benghazi Consulate.

There’s ample reason to be skeptical of these damning assessments, however. For starters, the controversy surrounding the candidate’s remarks involves semantics — act of terror or terrorist attack? — and won’t deter Republicans from continuing to criticize the administration’s response to the assault and overall Mideast policy.

What’s more, Americans were deeply concerned about the Soviet Union at the time of Gerald Ford’s gaffe — something that can’t be said for the public’s attitude toward Libya at the moment. In a national survey conducted by the Foreign Policy Initiative in mid-September, just over 2 percent of respondents cited Libya in response to an open-ended question about the country that presents the most danger to American national security interests.

Rosenthal concedes that Romney’s Libya remarks "likely won’t have the same impact as Mr. Ford’s Soviet domination gaffe or Mr. Bush’s watch episode, which "may have cost them their elections." But even here, there’s not much evidence that the Ford and Bush blunders had any such effect.

A 2008 Gallup study, for example, found that the 1992 presidential debates didn’t affect the standing of Bush or challenger Bill Clinton, though they may have boosted support for third-party candidate Ross Perot. The polling firm concluded that the 1976 presidential debates may have made the race "more competitive" but did not change the contest’s "fundamentals," since Carter was leading before the debates. "After Ford’s statement about the lack of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe — widely perceived as a gaffe – Carter’s lead expanded slightly to 6 points and remained at about that level after the third and final debate," Gallup noted.

The emerging Romney-equals-Ford narrative, in other words, doesn’t really work. Still, Ford’s experience does offer some cautionary tales for Romney. Ford campaign staffer Doug Bailey once recalled that while the Eastern Europe gaffe didn’t sway the election, it did halt the steady gains Ford had been making against Carter in the polls:

Our own polling data would suggest that really in the end we did not lose any people because of the Eastern European statement. That, by and large, people were shocked by it; dumbfounded by it, and some people close to that issue were offended by it…. But over time, almost all of those people came back to us. What it did cost us was momentum because we were just caught dead in our tracks for a week to ten days. And the progress of closing those gaps with about a half point per day stopped, at the same rate, after that ten day gap where everything just stood still.

And news outlets may have played a significant role in creating that dynamic that Bailey described. As the political scientist John Sides recently noted, debate viewers didn’t mention the Eastern Europe remarks in a poll conducted on the night of the Ford-Carter matchup. "Only for viewers interviewed the next day did this gaffe become more salient — evidence that the public needed the news media to point out that Ford had made a mistake," Sides observes. Indeed, the president was subsequently assailed by headlines such as "The Blooper Heard Round the World" and "Jerry Ford Drops a Brick." 

These days, the media’s judgment is near-instantaneous. If the press hype over the Libya exchange keeps building, it could be bad news for Mitt-mentum.