Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, admitted that the Commission made a huge mistake when it selected CNN’s Candy Crowley to moderate the second presidential debate. Crowley produced one of the pivotal moments of the campaign which she made a huge breach of debate protocol “correcting” Governor Romney regarding the ill-fated Benghazi attacks – a correction that was almost immediately disclosed as completely factually incorrect but derailed the debate nonetheless. That October 2012 debate slowed Romney’s momentum significantly and seemed to dramatically impact his strategy going forward. Fahrenkopf admitted to the mistaken selection in a lecture to conservatives at the Las Vegas Country Club this week.
Crowley stirred controversy by intervening in the town hall-style debate to support Obama’s contention that he had referred to the Sep. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi as a terrorist attack the day after it had occurred. In fact, as Crowley herself later admitted, Obama had not done so, referring only to “acts of terror” in general. In a CBS interview taped the same day, Obama declined to refer to the attack as a terrorist act, and subsequently supported a false story about a protest over an anti-Islamic video that never took place.
After Crowley backed up the president, some members of the audience burst into applause, in violation of the rules. The effect was not lost on the audience, which scored the debate as an Obama win–nor was it lost on Romney, who was sufficiently chastened that he refused to bring up the Benghazi issue again in the third presidential debate, even though that debate was specifically focused on foreign policy and national security.
Though it was likely not the only factor, or even the major factor, in Romney’s defeat, Crowley’s error slowed the new momentum that Romney had enjoyed since defeating Obama soundly in the first presidential debate. Her intervention also reinforced the media lack of interest in pursuing the Benghazi issue with the president.