"Declaring something an act of terror does not necessarily mean you are declaring it a terror attack."
—Megyn Kelly, Fox News, October 18, 2012
The most remarkable thing about the third presidential debate between President Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney was what didn't happen. Fox News Mitt, the right-wing fire breather expected to tear Obama a new one over his vacillating foreign policy, never showed.
Instead, voters saw Moderate Mitt, an intelligent fellow with limited understanding of the world beyond a balance sheet, playing it safe: out of his element, and completely out of his league.
Inside the Fox News bubble, see, President Obama is an affirmative-action hire lost without a teleprompter. Face to face, however, a fully engaged president was more than his inexperienced rival could handle.
Pundits trying to make Romney look shrewd call it a tactical retreat. Bush-style bombast would have scared women voters, who don't want to send their children to Syria; nor to Iran.
So Romney ended up affirming President Obama's policies almost across the board — all but nominating him as Secretary of State in a Romney administration — and getting his hat handed to him when he didn't.
At times, Obama risked arousing sympathy for his opponent. Responding to Romney's complaint about today's Navy having too few ships, the president's sarcasm was withering:
"Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we're counting ships. It's what are our capabilities."
Romney wisely dropped the issue.
Other times, Obama let him off easy. Syria's strategically crucial, Romney announced, because it's Iran's "route to the sea." Never mind that Syria and Iran don't share a land border, while Iran has hundreds of miles of beachfront property on the Persian Gulf.
Obama could have noted that the guy criticizing him for not making peace between Israel and Palestine told supporters in a secretly recorded video that peace there was impossible.
Truthfully, Romney probably lost the third debate when he bungled so badly at the end of the second. The candidate's immersion in the Fox fake news bubble left him looking like the overmatched prosecutor on the old "Perry Mason" show.
For weeks, Fox and its allies had falsely alleged that the Obama administration cravenly refused to call the murder of four Americans at the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya a terrorist act.
It was nonsense from the get-go, a fake controversy manufactured out of a doctored quote by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice.
Asked on the Sunday talk shows what caused the tragedy in Benghazi, Rice gave a two-part answer. She said that while much remained unclear, things appeared to begin as "a spontaneous, not a premeditated response to what had transpired in Cairo," i.e. to mob rioting over a video depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a pervert.
Rice added that the protest had been "hijacked by...clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons [that]...in the wake of the revolution in Libya, are quite common and accessible."
Now if extremists with heavy weapons doesn't say "terrorist" to you, then a lucrative career in TV pseudo-journalism could be yours.
And of course the insulting video enraged Islamic extremists. Could anything be more obvious?
Deleting the latter part of Rice's statement, Foxified pundits called for her head. Supposedly, she'd covered up al Qaeda involvement in the Libyan atrocity.
I say "Foxified" because the theme — with the identical doctored quote — spread to CNN, CBS News and other supposedly respectable news organizations. I've seen nothing quite so crass since ABC News did something similar to Hillary Clinton during Whitewater. My friend Bob Somerby has documented the affair on his indispensible DailyHowler.com website.
Enter the naïve and trusting GOP candidate, who mistakenly believed he'd caught President Obama in a lie.
"You said in the Rose Garden, the day after the attack it was an act of terror?" Romney asked incredulously. "It was not a spontaneous demonstration. Is that what you're saying?"
"Please proceed, governor."
"I want to make sure we get that for the record," Romney persisted. "Because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror."
"Get the transcript."
Any hope Romney had of cornering President Obama on foreign policy expired when moderator Candy Crowley affirmed that Obama was correct. Romney had bought his own side's propaganda. As presidential debate blunders go, it was an all-time classic, and would have been so described if the national political media weren't so invested in a cliffhanger election.
Meanwhile, the best that can be said about Romney's third debate performance is that he appeared to recognize that he was in over his head, and conducted himself accordingly.