Benghazi Truthers

Now and then you read a report from “within” a presidential campaign that strains credulity to the point where you wonder if it was deliberately put out as disinformation. That’s how I felt when I read this piece at Salon from Craig Unger:

According to a highly reliable source, as Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama prepare for the first presidential debate Wednesday night, top Republican operatives are primed to unleash a new two-pronged offensive that will attack Obama as weak on national security, and will be based, in part, on new intelligence information regarding the attacks in Libya that killed U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens on September 11.

The source, who has first-hand knowledge of private, high-level conversations in the Romney camp that took place in Washington, DC last week, said that at various times the GOP strategists referred to their new operation as the Jimmy Carter Strategy or the October Surprise.

He added that they planned to release what they hoped would be “a bombshell” that would make Libya and Obama’s foreign policy a major issue in the campaign. “My understanding is that they have come up with evidence that the Obama administration had positive intelligence that there was going to be a terrorist attack on the intelligence.”

The source described the Republicans as chortling with glee that the Obama administration “definitely had intel” about the attack before it happened. “Intelligence can be graded in different ways,” he added, “and sometimes A and B don’t get connected. But [the Romney campaign] will try to paint it to look like Obama had advance knowledge of the attack and is weak on terrorism.”

“Chortling with glee”? Seriously? If that’s true, Team Mitt better put down the crack pipe. They’ve already tried to exploit the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens as a sign of Obama’s “weakness” to no apparent effect. But now, if Unger’s source is reliable, they somehow think that getting down into the murky undergrowth of intelligence reports and claiming the administration knew exactly what would happen in Benghazi and lacked the resolve to do anything about it is going to turn the whole election around!

And it actually gets even crazier in Unger’s account:

He said they were jubilant about their new strategy and said they intended to portray Obama as a helpless, Jimmy Carter-like president and to equate the tragedy in Libya with President Carter’s failed attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1980. “They are so excited about it,” he said. “Over and over again they talked about how it would be just like Jimmy Carter’s failed raid. They feel it is going to give them a last-minute landslide in the election.”

Landslide? Maybe Unger’s source is Jennifer Rubin, who is beside herself in a post today urging Mitt to get in touch with his inner Dick Cheney on the Benghazi attacks:

If Romney can’t bring himself to call the president a “liar” on Libya, then say, “He didn’t level with you” or “It doesn’t pass the smell test” or “He told you things that weren’t true” or “He wasn’t candid with you.” After Sept. 11, 2001, he can remind voters, President George W. Bush kept us safe; Obama has not, and we have four dead Americans at the hands of jihadists.

Other than becoming the first known Republican to urge the Romney campaign to make the election a referendum on Obama versus Bush, Rubin is, of course, projecting her own neocon convictions that putting on warpaint is always a big electoral winner. But does even Rubin believe a “truther” effort to blame a terrorist act on the commander-in-chief who quickly became the mourner-in-chief over the deaths in Benghazi is going to work?

Beyond the specifics, of course, there’s this little matter of how strange it would be for the candidate who has again and again pledged a monomaniacal focus on the U.S. economy to suddenly try to make this a “foreign policy” election. I recall reading a private poll back in the late 1990s that measured the saliency of various issues in terms of whether they would actually effect voting decisions, and was shocked to learn that there was virtually no international topic that would turn a single vote, regardless of candidates’ relative positions on them. I strongly suspect we are in a similar situation today. And if Romney did somehow make swing voters care a lot about issues of war and peace, he will only draw additional attention to his implicit promise to get us into a war with Iran as quickly as possible, which is not a big crowd-pleaser.

Unger’s report, of course, is just one of many emanating from within or near the Romney campaign about its secret brilliant tactics that us outsiders are just too dumb to comprehend. Most at the moment involve micro-targeting: Mitt will get over the hump by promising a nineteenth-century-industrial-revolution effort to fill the skies with coal dust, or put the whole country to work on pipelines and oil platforms, or put the power and authority of the federal government behind the war on Lyme’s Disease. At this point, I don’t know what to believe, and I wouldn’t put any tactic past these birds.

But there’s something about the image of Romney staff and consultants sitting around chortling about how they’ve finally found a way to replay the 1980 election that bears the strong aroma of self-delusion. Heavy reliance on the Benghazi Truther approach would certainly give the wingnutosphere a big opening to revisit all their favorite Obama-Hates-America “vetting” schemes. But the only “October Surprise” such a tactic would likely generate is a consolidation of swing-voter impressions that Mitt Romney is living on a different planet, listening to strange alien voices.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.