Commentary Magazine


Posts For: October 22, 2012

The New National Pastime: Poll Analysis

The 2012 election is the first presidential contest in the age of Twitter. It’s also the one that may be remembered as the one in which analysis of poll data became the subject of mass discussion as opposed to the domain of a few political science and statistical freaks. The New York Times’s Nate Silver is as responsible for this as anyone, but the trend is fed by the proliferation of national polls whose results are as varied as their methodologies. Silver has become something of a lightening rod in this election as his forecast which, has continually favored President Obama’s prospects, is now coming in for almost as much scrutiny as the policies of the man he’d like to see re-elected. As someone who has occasionally criticized Silver’s conclusions, I think the focus on him is unfortunate. Silver is a brilliant stat man who whose work attempts to bring the unsparing realism and devotion to accuracy and understanding that is the hallmark of sabermetrics — the study of baseball statistics that derives from the acronym for the Society of American Baseball Research — to political writing. That, like some baseball writers, he cannot always rise above his prejudices, is unfortunate but does not mean his work isn’t worthwhile. Silver is always a good read and even if he seems to have an agenda, I always learn from his posts.

Nevertheless, given the importance that Democrats are placing on his “Five Thirty Eight Forecast,” it was only a matter of time before Silver was given a thorough takedown and Josh Jordan of National Review has done it in a must read analysis. In “Nate Silver’s Flawed Model,” Jordan details how Silver’s partisan leanings have influenced his judgment about how much weight to give to various polls. As Jordan points out, Silver tends to assess the reliability of certain polls based on his feelings about whether they are right, which is to say sufficiently pro-Obama. While I don’t think Silver’s purpose is deception, his bias has created a model that seems designed to produce one result even if it contradicts what many see as a pro-Romney trend. As such, he’s become the geekiest yet perhaps also the most important cheerleader in the country these days as liberals look to his blog for comfort in trying times. But Silver isn’t the only one making mistakes out there.

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The 2012 election is the first presidential contest in the age of Twitter. It’s also the one that may be remembered as the one in which analysis of poll data became the subject of mass discussion as opposed to the domain of a few political science and statistical freaks. The New York Times’s Nate Silver is as responsible for this as anyone, but the trend is fed by the proliferation of national polls whose results are as varied as their methodologies. Silver has become something of a lightening rod in this election as his forecast which, has continually favored President Obama’s prospects, is now coming in for almost as much scrutiny as the policies of the man he’d like to see re-elected. As someone who has occasionally criticized Silver’s conclusions, I think the focus on him is unfortunate. Silver is a brilliant stat man who whose work attempts to bring the unsparing realism and devotion to accuracy and understanding that is the hallmark of sabermetrics — the study of baseball statistics that derives from the acronym for the Society of American Baseball Research — to political writing. That, like some baseball writers, he cannot always rise above his prejudices, is unfortunate but does not mean his work isn’t worthwhile. Silver is always a good read and even if he seems to have an agenda, I always learn from his posts.

Nevertheless, given the importance that Democrats are placing on his “Five Thirty Eight Forecast,” it was only a matter of time before Silver was given a thorough takedown and Josh Jordan of National Review has done it in a must read analysis. In “Nate Silver’s Flawed Model,” Jordan details how Silver’s partisan leanings have influenced his judgment about how much weight to give to various polls. As Jordan points out, Silver tends to assess the reliability of certain polls based on his feelings about whether they are right, which is to say sufficiently pro-Obama. While I don’t think Silver’s purpose is deception, his bias has created a model that seems designed to produce one result even if it contradicts what many see as a pro-Romney trend. As such, he’s become the geekiest yet perhaps also the most important cheerleader in the country these days as liberals look to his blog for comfort in trying times. But Silver isn’t the only one making mistakes out there.

Trying to make sense of the various national polls would defeat a lesser mind than Silver’s and that’s the position the rest of us are placed in by the contradictory results being produced. But you don’t have to be as sharp as the Times blogger to understand that if you poll a Democrat-leaning sample, you get a Democrat-leaning result.

Thus, amid the flood of polls showing progress for Romney, there are some showing Obama holding his own. But almost all of them report that their poll sample is made up of respondents who appear to be disproportionately identified as Democrats. For example, that was the case with last week’s Washington Post/ABC News poll that showed the president with a three-point lead. It’s sample showed nine percent more Democrats as opposed to Republicans, a result that seems at variance with reality as well as outstripping the numbers that were produced by President Obama’s 2008 near-landslide.

This week, the same poll produced a slightly less favorable result for the president giving him only a one-point lead. While some might interpret this as part of a pro-Romney trend or more evidence that the president failed to get a bounce out of last week’s debate, the reason for the different result is found in the last question in the survey: Do you think of yourself as a Republican or a Democrat? In one week, the poll’s party identification sample changed from plus nine for the Democrats to only plus five.

Now, as Silver has often rightly pointed out, party identification is not set in stone and can vary. But do we really believe the country’s view of the parties, as opposed to the candidates, can change that much in one week. A review of the samples in this poll in the past year shows similar fluctuations.

Understanding that the sample you choose more or less dictates your poll results is the sort of unoriginal insight that puts even stat amateurs pretty much on an even playing field with smart guys like Silver. Put simply, the polls that show Obama winning only make sense if you believe the Democrats’ turnout will far eclipse that of the Republicans and at least match the “hope and change” fervor of 2008. That’s certainly possible but is not particularly likely. Which is why the healthy skepticism being shown toward outlier polls that favor Obama is not merely conservatives letting their wishes be father to their thoughts.

In the two weeks that remain before the election, we’ll have a lot more polls to dig through but that basic truth about samples should never be far from our thoughts. We don’t know what the results in the only poll that counts — the one at the ballot box — will be but until we get there, we’re stuck trying to, as Silver would say, filter out the “noise” that is obscuring the truth about public opinion. Unfortunately, some of that noise comes in the form of analysis that is as heavily influenced by partisan feelings as that shown by any hometown baseball scribe.

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Live Tweeting the Final Debate

Tonight at 9pm (ET), Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama will face off for the last time at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. Bob Schieffer of Face the Nation will be moderating this debate, focused entirely on foreign policy. Our editors will be live tweeting their quips, observations and reactions. Follow us on Twitter here and read our most recent tweets below.

From @Commentary:

Tonight at 9pm (ET), Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama will face off for the last time at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. Bob Schieffer of Face the Nation will be moderating this debate, focused entirely on foreign policy. Our editors will be live tweeting their quips, observations and reactions. Follow us on Twitter here and read our most recent tweets below.

From @Commentary:

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Kerry: Obama Fulfilled Promise to “Decimate al-Qaeda”

Sen. John Kerry, national security sage, writes the following in an Obama campaign memo today (h/t Fox News):

Under President Obama’s leadership, we have devastated al-Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Not only has the United States taken out Osama bin Laden, but we have devastated a large majority of al-Qaeda’s core group of leaders. And today our nation is safer because these terrorists have been eliminated. But there is still more work to do. …

President Obama kept his promise to re-focus our efforts on the real reason we went to Afghanistan after 9/11 – to decimate al-Qaeda and prevent a return to the safe haven they had there. Now that we’re accomplishing those objectives, the President has a plan to end the war in 2014, and our troops are already coming home. After over a decade at war, the President has a plan to use the savings from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to do some nation-building here at home.

Not only is AQ not decimated in Afghanistan, it’s rebuilding strength as U.S. forces withdraw, Fox News reports:

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Sen. John Kerry, national security sage, writes the following in an Obama campaign memo today (h/t Fox News):

Under President Obama’s leadership, we have devastated al-Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Not only has the United States taken out Osama bin Laden, but we have devastated a large majority of al-Qaeda’s core group of leaders. And today our nation is safer because these terrorists have been eliminated. But there is still more work to do. …

President Obama kept his promise to re-focus our efforts on the real reason we went to Afghanistan after 9/11 – to decimate al-Qaeda and prevent a return to the safe haven they had there. Now that we’re accomplishing those objectives, the President has a plan to end the war in 2014, and our troops are already coming home. After over a decade at war, the President has a plan to use the savings from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to do some nation-building here at home.

Not only is AQ not decimated in Afghanistan, it’s rebuilding strength as U.S. forces withdraw, Fox News reports:

A diminished but resilient Al Qaeda, whose 9/11 attacks drew America into its longest war, is attempting a comeback in Afghanistan’s mountainous east even as U.S. and allied forces wind down their combat mission and concede a small but steady toehold to the terrorist group. …

U.S. and Afghan officials say Al Qaeda also has been building ties with like-minded Islamic militant groups present in Afghanistan, including Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is blamed for the November 2008 rampage in Mumbai, India, that killed 166 people, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is present in the north.

Ahmadullah Mowahed, a member of the Afghan parliament from the eastern province of Nuristan, along the Pakistan border, said he fears the departure of American combat forces will open the way for the Taliban and Al Qaeda to overwhelm the provincial government.

The U.S. has made progress in Afghanistan, but withdrawing too early will give AQ-tied militants an opportunity to regroup. Then there’s the troubling fact that al-Qaeda is gathering strength elsewhere, in the Arabian Peninsula, Libya, Mali and Somalia.

But the Obama campaign is tied to the narrative that al-Qaeda is on its last legs, because acknowledging otherwise would deflate all of Obama’s marquee foreign policy achievements. Killing Osama bin Laden would be reduced from the climactic resolution of the war on terror to a mere act of justice. Prematurely ending the war in Afghanistan would be exposed as a political move rather than a victorious drawdown. And Obama’s policy in Libya — the only Arab Spring state where he gambled on an intervention — would be called into question. Such a fragile narrative will be a risk in tonight’s debate.

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Israeli Political Parties Find Their Voices

One of the more interesting aspects of the current Israeli political pre-election shuffling is the unsettled nature of every major political party to the left of Likud. Kadima and Labor, the two largest parties outside the current governing coalition, have each been going through identity crises. The third wild card, Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid party, has no record and Lapid has no real political experience, leaving the public guessing as to where they fit on the ideological spectrum.

But now, it seems, there is suddenly a great degree of clarity. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may be back in court, as the state is strongly considering appealing some of the acquittals in his corruption case, and such legal action may make it impossible for him to run. That would make it much more likely that Tzipi Livni would return to the political stage without having to compete with Olmert. (Though the two reached some sort of agreement not to compete against each other anyway. No one, however, seems to know exactly what that means in practice.) But even more interesting–if not surprising–is the emergence of an identity for Labor and for Lapid’s Yesh Atid.

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One of the more interesting aspects of the current Israeli political pre-election shuffling is the unsettled nature of every major political party to the left of Likud. Kadima and Labor, the two largest parties outside the current governing coalition, have each been going through identity crises. The third wild card, Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid party, has no record and Lapid has no real political experience, leaving the public guessing as to where they fit on the ideological spectrum.

But now, it seems, there is suddenly a great degree of clarity. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may be back in court, as the state is strongly considering appealing some of the acquittals in his corruption case, and such legal action may make it impossible for him to run. That would make it much more likely that Tzipi Livni would return to the political stage without having to compete with Olmert. (Though the two reached some sort of agreement not to compete against each other anyway. No one, however, seems to know exactly what that means in practice.) But even more interesting–if not surprising–is the emergence of an identity for Labor and for Lapid’s Yesh Atid.

Labor’s new leader, Shelly Yachimovich, has been hinting that her slate of candidates will move Labor to the left and incorporate leaders of Israel’s social protest movement. But it has also been courting the military to burnish the party’s national security credentials. The strategy of moving to the left is, as I wrote last week, a risky one, since the Israeli electorate has moved to the right on the peace process and has been in the habit of punishing Labor at the polls repeatedly.

But the ideological outlook of the party took another step to the left, as Peace Now Executive Director Yariv Oppenheimer announced he’ll run for a seat on the Labor slate. The Jerusalem Post reports:

“In addition to the social agenda, the Labor Party must raise the diplomatic flag and fight against the expansion of settlement construction and waves of anti-democratic legislation that the Israeli Right is leading,” Oppenheimer said after resigning from his post in Peace Now on Monday.

Thus far, Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich has focused almost exclusively on social issues.

An overwhelming focus on social issues with a dash of anti-settler, land-for-peace moral thundering is a recipe for a full reengagement of the culture wars. For Lapid, on the other hand, accommodation with Palestinians must be found without uprooting large Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria:

The Yesh Atid leader courted rightwing voters, saying “I’m not a lefty,” that settlement blocs, including the city of Ariel, must stay under Israeli sovereignty, and Jerusalem should not be divided.

As for the lack of peace talks in recent years, Lapid said “the Palestinians brought this upon themselves. If after the disengagement [from Gaza] they didn’t build hospitals and schools, but training sites, there is no doubt that it is their responsibility – but we also need negotiations for ourselves.”

Lapid quipped that his late father, former justice minister and Shinui leader Tommy Lapid, “did not leave the ghetto to live in a binational state.

This is the land of the Jews, and we have the right to finally get rid of the Palestinians. There won’t be a new Middle East, but we won’t have 3.5 million Palestinians in Israeli territory.”

I’m sure pundits will glom onto the typically nuanced phrase “get rid of the Palestinians,” but the overall sentiment—peace negotiations are stalled because of the Palestinians’ rejectionism, but necessary in the end to disentangle the two sides—is a common attitude among the Israeli electorate, and perfectly sums up the outlook of Avigdor Lieberman’s increasingly successful Israel Beiteinu party. Lapid also noted that he would not rule out sitting in a coalition with Orthodox parties, something his father refused to do. If Lapid even gains the seats he is projected to win in early polling (a big “if”), the right would be an absolutely dominant force in the Knesset. And that doesn’t even count Kadima, which began as a center-right party as well.

Lapid, by being so explicit about his views, is betting that despite the existence of a broad, center-right governing coalition, there are still more votes to be had for another rightist party. Labor is betting that if it can swell its ranks to include everyone to the left of the current governing coalition, it can at least return to prominence as the main, if not the only, electoral vehicle for left-leaning Israelis. That might mean a Labor that is increasingly successful electorally and increasingly marginal politically at the same time.

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Akin’s A Gift That Keeps Giving

In recent weeks, some conservative Republicans have revolted against the party’s mainstream consensus that held that no effort should be made to help Rep. Todd Akin’s doomed Missouri Senate candidacy. Deceived by polls that showed him within range of unpopular incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill, they rallied to his side with fundraising and moral support. Their efforts were a misallocation of scarce Republican resources, but there were some who thought it possible that Akin could overcome the opprobrium that had rightly rained down on his head after his shockingly stupid and offensive comments about pregnancy and rape.

This past weekend, Akin dug himself a little deeper with comments that likened McCaskill to a dog. While not all that terrible in of themselves — most politicians have been called worse things than little dogs who play fetch — this latest gaffe ought to be a wake-up call for any conservative inclined to waste any more time on his behalf. Akin is the gift that keeps giving for Democrats, and Republicans would be well advised to follow the Romney campaign’s example and ignore the congressman’s forlorn campaign until it finally goes away of its own accord on Election Day.

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In recent weeks, some conservative Republicans have revolted against the party’s mainstream consensus that held that no effort should be made to help Rep. Todd Akin’s doomed Missouri Senate candidacy. Deceived by polls that showed him within range of unpopular incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill, they rallied to his side with fundraising and moral support. Their efforts were a misallocation of scarce Republican resources, but there were some who thought it possible that Akin could overcome the opprobrium that had rightly rained down on his head after his shockingly stupid and offensive comments about pregnancy and rape.

This past weekend, Akin dug himself a little deeper with comments that likened McCaskill to a dog. While not all that terrible in of themselves — most politicians have been called worse things than little dogs who play fetch — this latest gaffe ought to be a wake-up call for any conservative inclined to waste any more time on his behalf. Akin is the gift that keeps giving for Democrats, and Republicans would be well advised to follow the Romney campaign’s example and ignore the congressman’s forlorn campaign until it finally goes away of its own accord on Election Day.

It is a tribute to McCaskill’s unpopularity that Akin remains not all that far behind in some polls. But for all of the attempts by some on the right to either rationalize what he said or to pretend that he has a chance, it’s obvious by now that the majority of Missouri voters have no intention of putting him in the Senate, even if means re-electing McCaskill.

McCaskill spent a lot of her own campaign funds on ads that helped Akin win the GOP primary over more electable opponents, and right now that investment seems like the best political money spent in any race in the country. Akin’s dog comment is also a reminder that the rape/pregnancy atrocity that he uttered was not an unusual event. He is an ongoing embarrassment who is not only responsible for single-handedly costing the Republicans a certain Senate pickup but has become the poster child for liberal efforts to brand the entire GOP as morons as part of their faux war on women theme. That even now he doesn’t understand that he needs to be on his guard against comments that denigrate women shows the depths of his cluelessness.

The sooner Akin goes away for good the better it will be for conservatism. That’s a message his bitter-end enablers should have learned by now. Just because a man is attacked by liberals doesn’t make him a victim or a hero. Sometimes a fool is just a fool, no matter what his political label might be.

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The Sorry Legacy of McGovern Democrats

The death of George McGovern has set off an avalanche of praise for the former senator and presidential candidate. As someone whose time on the political stage is long past and whose memory is unclouded by personal scandal, this treatment is entirely appropriate. McGovern was a distinguished war veteran and, by all accounts, conducted his long political career in an honest and honorable manner. Though such persons are by no means unknown in contemporary politics, for one reason or another they seem rare enough for a lot of people to think we would be better off if we had more McGoverns in Washington.

But however much respect the individual deserves, we also ought to acknowledge how McGovern helped transform the Democratic Party from the institution that effectively defended the West against Communism in the aftermath of World War II into one that stood for appeasement of the Soviet empire. Though the fall of the Berlin Wall has allowed many who opposed the policies that helped bring about that outcome to pretend as if there was always a wall-to-wall national coalition opposing the advance of Communism, McGovern’s passing is a reminder of how that that consensus was destroyed.

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The death of George McGovern has set off an avalanche of praise for the former senator and presidential candidate. As someone whose time on the political stage is long past and whose memory is unclouded by personal scandal, this treatment is entirely appropriate. McGovern was a distinguished war veteran and, by all accounts, conducted his long political career in an honest and honorable manner. Though such persons are by no means unknown in contemporary politics, for one reason or another they seem rare enough for a lot of people to think we would be better off if we had more McGoverns in Washington.

But however much respect the individual deserves, we also ought to acknowledge how McGovern helped transform the Democratic Party from the institution that effectively defended the West against Communism in the aftermath of World War II into one that stood for appeasement of the Soviet empire. Though the fall of the Berlin Wall has allowed many who opposed the policies that helped bring about that outcome to pretend as if there was always a wall-to-wall national coalition opposing the advance of Communism, McGovern’s passing is a reminder of how that that consensus was destroyed.

The decisions by John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to make Vietnam an American war may have been ill-advised, but the animating spirit of the anti-war left that McGovern led was not so much about the wisdom of that commitment as it was agnostic about the need to stop the Communists. Vietnam is now buried so deep in our political history that one might as well talk about the Spanish-American War as that conflict. But one unfortunate aspect of the way America moved on after the fall of Saigon is the way the political left avoided responsibility for the tragedy that America’s defeat created. American disgust with the waste and loss of life in Vietnam was understandable, but the war helped turn the Democrats from a bulwark of the Cold War coalition to its critics. This led not only to the abandonment of South Vietnam to the tender mercies of North Vietnamese commissars and “re-education” camps, but also helped set the stage for a decade of Soviet adventurism that was only halted during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

The McGovern Democrats didn’t just hijack their party. They led it to a historic defeat at the hands of one of the least popular incumbent presidents. Richard Nixon’s lies and follies have allowed his opponents to portray themselves as being before their time. But it was the radicalism of McGovern’s followers that scared the nation into giving Nixon a landslide re-election.

In the years that followed, Democrats would be careful not to put on another left-wing freak show like the 1972 convention that nominated McGovern, but the South Dakotan’s followers would nevertheless have their way in terms of setting the agenda for the party. In the decades that followed, the bulk of Democrats would become reflexive opponents of restraining the Soviet Union as well as embracing the welfare state in a way that earlier generations of Democrats would have found troubling.

Despite the nostalgia for the anti-war movement and the ongoing dislike of Nixon, history’s verdict will not be kind to the McGovern Democrats. They helped defend the excesses of modern liberalism that wreaked havoc on the poor and built the infrastructure for our out-of-control government debt. If the Soviet empire fell, it was in spite of the efforts of the McGovern Democrats to prop it up and to oppose anti-Communist measures. While today’s Democratic Party is a very different animal than the one he led in 1972, we can hear echoes of his influence in its equivocal stance towards American global power and its addiction to big government.

We should honor George McGovern the man, but we should remember that the political influence of his movement did the country and the world great harm.

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White House Keeps Muddying Benghazi

According to the latest White House-advancing spin, the CIA thought there was a protest outside the Benghazi consulate for 11 entire days after the attack. This is amazing. Apparently the media has access to better intelligence than the CIA, since the general public found out the protest didn’t exist just two days after the attack, via McClatchy.

Sources tell the Wall Street Journal that our intelligence officials are so clueless that they clung to the idea that there were protests outside the consulate, even after savvier Obama advisors became skeptical and started raising questions:

President Barack Obama was told in his daily intelligence briefing for more than a week after the consulate siege in Benghazi that the assault grew out of a spontaneous protest, despite conflicting reports from witnesses and other sources that began to cast doubt on the accuracy of that assessment almost from the start.

New details about the contents of the President’s Daily Brief, which haven’t been reported previously, show that the Central Intelligence Agency didn’t adjust the classified assessment until Sept. 22, fueling tensions between the administration and the agency. …

That weekend, officials at the office of the Director of National Intelligence began to seriously question the accuracy of the assessment after receiving new information Sept. 15 and Sept. 16 from sources that suggested the consulate attack wasn’t preceded by a protest.

Despite the building doubts at the office of the Director of National Intelligence, the CIA stuck by its assessment during a deputies-level meeting at the White House on Sept. 17.

Even after the Office of the Director of National Intelligence reportedly began to question the CIA’s account on September 15, the CIA allegedly refused to back down on the “spontaneous protest” claim until September 22. Question: The DNI compiles the presidential daily briefings from CIA intel, so how could it conclude the “spontaneous protest” line was wrong before the CIA did? And why would the CIA cling to a narrative if it had a preponderance of evidence contradicting it?

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According to the latest White House-advancing spin, the CIA thought there was a protest outside the Benghazi consulate for 11 entire days after the attack. This is amazing. Apparently the media has access to better intelligence than the CIA, since the general public found out the protest didn’t exist just two days after the attack, via McClatchy.

Sources tell the Wall Street Journal that our intelligence officials are so clueless that they clung to the idea that there were protests outside the consulate, even after savvier Obama advisors became skeptical and started raising questions:

President Barack Obama was told in his daily intelligence briefing for more than a week after the consulate siege in Benghazi that the assault grew out of a spontaneous protest, despite conflicting reports from witnesses and other sources that began to cast doubt on the accuracy of that assessment almost from the start.

New details about the contents of the President’s Daily Brief, which haven’t been reported previously, show that the Central Intelligence Agency didn’t adjust the classified assessment until Sept. 22, fueling tensions between the administration and the agency. …

That weekend, officials at the office of the Director of National Intelligence began to seriously question the accuracy of the assessment after receiving new information Sept. 15 and Sept. 16 from sources that suggested the consulate attack wasn’t preceded by a protest.

Despite the building doubts at the office of the Director of National Intelligence, the CIA stuck by its assessment during a deputies-level meeting at the White House on Sept. 17.

Even after the Office of the Director of National Intelligence reportedly began to question the CIA’s account on September 15, the CIA allegedly refused to back down on the “spontaneous protest” claim until September 22. Question: The DNI compiles the presidential daily briefings from CIA intel, so how could it conclude the “spontaneous protest” line was wrong before the CIA did? And why would the CIA cling to a narrative if it had a preponderance of evidence contradicting it?

Plus — 11 days? The CIA had agents based in Benghazi. State Department officials in Washington said they were able to watch the attack unfolding in real time. The U.S. had at least one predator drone sending back footage from the onslaught. You would think eyewitnesses would have mentioned this afterward during debriefings. Are we supposed to believe the CIA questioned nobody?

Apparently. But sources assure the Wall Street Journal that the intelligence community isn’t completely incompetent. No, it just didn’t realize the existence (or nonexistence) of a protest was an important element to focus on:

CIA analysis was focused more on whether there was forewarning of the attack and who was behind it, a senior U.S. official said, adding that the question of a protest preceding the attack is the least important component of the analysis.

“What’s getting lost is how small this change actually was. … It doesn’t matter whether there were protests ongoing at the time,” the senior U.S. official said, adding that the analysis reflected from the beginning that “the attack was conducted by terrorists and most likely inspired by events in Cairo.”

If it was so trivial, you wonder why the White House spokesperson spent entire press briefings trying to convince reporters that the protest story was true. And if the DNI was allegedly so skeptical of the story the CIA was supposedly telling, why didn’t the Obama administration just keep its collective mouth shut on the protest narrative? They were the ones publicly hyping it for nearly two weeks, not the CIA.

It sounds like the White House has no good defense for its bungled response to the Benghazi attack, so it’s trying to muddy the waters before tonight’s debate. Yes, they’re probably throwing the CIA under the bus in one of the most classless and damaging ways possible. But by the time intelligence officials start anonymously refuting the charges, it will be after the debate and won’t matter (at least not politically).

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Has Obama Learned From His Mistakes?

The most effective argument for President Obama in tonight’s foreign policy debate is consistent with the one the Democrats have been using as their all-purpose cudgel against Republicans this year: George W. Bush. Bush has been the president’s alibi on the economy as he continues to blame his predecessor for the country’s troubles on his watch. But on foreign policy, naming Bush is an offensive rather than a defensive stance since it allows the president to label his challenger as someone who would repeat the mistakes made by the 43rd president. To a country that is weary of 11 years of conflict in Afghanistan and shudders at the memory of the conflict America left in Iraq, calling Romney another Bush and calling his advisors “neocons” who are his “puppet masters” may be an effective, if somewhat unfair and misleading argument. But the real question on foreign policy is not whether the United States will invade any countries in the next four years, since neither man is likely to do that. Rather, it is whether they can learn from the mistakes made in the last decade made by both of the last two administrations.

Romney’s inherent caution makes him unlikely to be trigger-happy when it comes to foreign interventions that are now seen in retrospect as unfortunate. But invading countries is not the only sort of mistake a president can make. While Romney will be careful not to fall into the traps that undid Bush, it remains to be seen whether President Obama is capable of learning from the mistakes he has made in office, especially in the Middle East.

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The most effective argument for President Obama in tonight’s foreign policy debate is consistent with the one the Democrats have been using as their all-purpose cudgel against Republicans this year: George W. Bush. Bush has been the president’s alibi on the economy as he continues to blame his predecessor for the country’s troubles on his watch. But on foreign policy, naming Bush is an offensive rather than a defensive stance since it allows the president to label his challenger as someone who would repeat the mistakes made by the 43rd president. To a country that is weary of 11 years of conflict in Afghanistan and shudders at the memory of the conflict America left in Iraq, calling Romney another Bush and calling his advisors “neocons” who are his “puppet masters” may be an effective, if somewhat unfair and misleading argument. But the real question on foreign policy is not whether the United States will invade any countries in the next four years, since neither man is likely to do that. Rather, it is whether they can learn from the mistakes made in the last decade made by both of the last two administrations.

Romney’s inherent caution makes him unlikely to be trigger-happy when it comes to foreign interventions that are now seen in retrospect as unfortunate. But invading countries is not the only sort of mistake a president can make. While Romney will be careful not to fall into the traps that undid Bush, it remains to be seen whether President Obama is capable of learning from the mistakes he has made in office, especially in the Middle East.

That apparent incapacity to learn from mistakes was on display this past weekend when the New York Times broke its story about an agreement between the administration and Iran for direct talks following the election. Both sides have now denied it, but the Times isn’t exactly backing down and I can’t entirely blame them for that. The administration’s ambivalence — the sources were all reportedly senior Obama officials — seems based on a justified concern that they were being caught showing some post-election “flexibility” that might undermine the president’s electoral hopes. But no matter how many denials are issued — and the Iranians can always be counted on to talk out of both sides of their mouth on such things — does anyone really doubt that the administration has been begging Tehran for such talks for years and is eager to strike some sort of unsatisfactory compromise with them that would allow the president to claim victory and then move on while the Iranians prepared to emulate North Korea?

This points out the president’s inability to understand that four years of comical “engagement” with Iran followed by years of half-hearted sanctions and futile efforts to persuade them to give up their nuclear ambitions have not worked. Even worse, they have convinced the ayatollahs that the president isn’t serious about stopping their nuclear program and can be counted on to go on allowing them to buy time with pointless negotiations until the day when they can announce they have achieved their goal.

Issuing “red lines” about Iran’s nuclear development would have showed that the president had learned from his mistakes, but his stubborn refusal to do so and his pretense that everything he has done has only strengthened his weak hand with Tehran doubles down on his errors. Though Romney is called a neocon for calling for a tough line on Iran, establishing America’s credibility on the issue is exactly what is needed after four years of weakness.

The Middle East peace process is another example of how the president seems to have no awareness of how his errors in which he undermined Israel helped encourage Palestinian intransigence and make a resolution of the conflict even more unlikely. The president’s inept response to the Arab Spring and the rise of Islamist governments in the region also betrays no willingness to reassess a muddled record. As the Libya fiasco showed, merely killing Osama bin Laden is not only a poor substitute for a foreign policy, it also tells us nothing about the administration’s faltering response to a revived al-Qaeda.

Elsewhere, the president’s passionate pursuit of favor with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China yielded nothing but more contempt from these regimes. The president’s hot mic moment in which he promised to be more flexible with Russia stands as a clear warning of what a second Obama administration will do.

Romney is right to assert that America’s military pre-eminence must be maintained and that strength is the best way to avoid conflict, but it is also fair for to ask whether he has learned from Bush’s mistakes. An even better question is whether Obama has learned from his. Based on everything we have seen and heard in the last year, the answer seems to be no.

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GWU/Politico: Romney Up in Swing States

Mitt Romney gained three points since last week in the Politico/GWU battleground tracking poll, but the bigger news is that he’s leading President Obama by two points — the first time he’s been on top in this poll since early May:

A new POLITICO/George Washington University Battleground Tracking Poll of 1,000 likely voters — taken from Sunday through Thursday of last week — shows Romney ahead of Obama by two points, 49 to 47 percent. That represents a three-point swing in the GOP nominee’s direction from a week ago but is still within the margin of error. Obama led 49 percent to 48 percent the week before. …

Across the 10 states identified by POLITICO as competitive, Romney leads 50 to 48 percent. …

Two weeks from Election Day, the GOP nominee also continues to maintain a potentially pivotal advantage in intensity among his supporters. Seventy-two percent of those who support Obama say they are “extremely likely” to vote, compared to 80 percent who back Romney. Among this group, Romney leads Obama by 7 points, 52 to 45 percent.

The intensity gap is just one of Obama’s problems. He’s also losing ground with women voters:

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Mitt Romney gained three points since last week in the Politico/GWU battleground tracking poll, but the bigger news is that he’s leading President Obama by two points — the first time he’s been on top in this poll since early May:

A new POLITICO/George Washington University Battleground Tracking Poll of 1,000 likely voters — taken from Sunday through Thursday of last week — shows Romney ahead of Obama by two points, 49 to 47 percent. That represents a three-point swing in the GOP nominee’s direction from a week ago but is still within the margin of error. Obama led 49 percent to 48 percent the week before. …

Across the 10 states identified by POLITICO as competitive, Romney leads 50 to 48 percent. …

Two weeks from Election Day, the GOP nominee also continues to maintain a potentially pivotal advantage in intensity among his supporters. Seventy-two percent of those who support Obama say they are “extremely likely” to vote, compared to 80 percent who back Romney. Among this group, Romney leads Obama by 7 points, 52 to 45 percent.

The intensity gap is just one of Obama’s problems. He’s also losing ground with women voters:

Women propelled Romney’s move into first place in the poll — a majority of which was conducted before the Hofstra debate. Obama’s 11-point advantage a week ago among the crucially important group dwindled to 6 points. The Democratic incumbent still leads 51 to 45 percent with women, but Romney leads by 10 points among men.

As noted above, most of the poll was taken pre-Hofstra debate, which explains the Obama campaign’s obsession with “binders full of women.” But the War on Women gimmicks seem to have lost their potency. Sandra Fluke’s Nevada rally that drew just 10 people to a Sak-n-Save parking lot this week is an apt metaphor for Obama’s fumbling campaign.

There are also some post-Hofstra polls out today that show Romney’s momentum continuing in the swing states. Obama’s 10-point Ohio lead last month has slipped to five points in the Quinnipiac/CBS News poll. And the president is ahead by just one point in the PPP Ohio poll, down from a five-point lead last week. The Obama campaign has argued the national polls showing Romney tied or ahead are far less meaningful than the swing state ones. But a few more polls like these, and Chicago may come to regret that argument.

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WH Spin: No Evidence AQ Was Involved in Benghazi

We’ve been seeing some interesting “scoops” about Benghazi on the eve of the foreign policy debate. Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times reported that there’s “no evidence” al-Qaeda had any ties to the consulate attack. No evidence? That’s funny, considering the group behind the attack, Ansar al-Sharia, is viewed as al-Qaeda’s face in Libya, according to a Library of Congress report from this summer. Also, the intelligence community reportedly intercepted phone calls in which Ansar al-Sharia leaders bragged to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb leaders after the attack. Also, the State Department has designated Ansar al-Sharia a new alias for al-Qaeda in Yemen, etc.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post‘s David Ignatius reported yesterday on CIA “talking points” that supposedly back up the administration’s initial “spontaneous reaction” story. But this isn’t much of a scoop or a story; these talking points were actually reported on weeks ago, and, according to Reuters, didn’t appear to match the actual intelligence.

At the Weekly Standard, Thomas Joscelyn writes:

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We’ve been seeing some interesting “scoops” about Benghazi on the eve of the foreign policy debate. Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times reported that there’s “no evidence” al-Qaeda had any ties to the consulate attack. No evidence? That’s funny, considering the group behind the attack, Ansar al-Sharia, is viewed as al-Qaeda’s face in Libya, according to a Library of Congress report from this summer. Also, the intelligence community reportedly intercepted phone calls in which Ansar al-Sharia leaders bragged to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb leaders after the attack. Also, the State Department has designated Ansar al-Sharia a new alias for al-Qaeda in Yemen, etc.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post‘s David Ignatius reported yesterday on CIA “talking points” that supposedly back up the administration’s initial “spontaneous reaction” story. But this isn’t much of a scoop or a story; these talking points were actually reported on weeks ago, and, according to Reuters, didn’t appear to match the actual intelligence.

At the Weekly Standard, Thomas Joscelyn writes:

Other press accounts have fingered additional suspects with links to al Qaeda as well. And there is substantial evidence that al Qaeda has built a substantial network inside of Libya.

Even though no one disputes that AQIM members were in contact with the attackers, however, it will take time to sort through all of the precise details.

But these latest accounts are not intended to comb through the evidence carefully. They are intended to provide political cover ahead of the final presidential debate.

Exactly. And the journalists aren’t just being used as mouthpieces for White House spin, they’re also allowing the administration to keep its hands clean while doing it. It doesn’t matter for the administration if the stories are false and misleading, as long as enough people believe them going into tonight’s debate.

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What Worried the White House About Iran Negotiation Leaks?

As Jonathan wrote, the New York Times caused a stir over the weekend with its report that the Obama administration agreed to one-on-one talks with Iran over its nuclear program. The story has been interpreted (and reinterpreted) with respect to its utility to the president before tonight’s foreign policy debate depending on the perceived nature of the leaks. So when the story first broke, it was assumed the Obama administration thought this would be politically beneficial on the eve of the debate. When the vigorous denials came—convincing enough to get the Times to change its story without alerting its readers—the public seemed to reconsider.

It is now, therefore, seen as a negative story for the administration—unhelpful, as Obama officials might say. But why? What is it about face-to-face negotiations with the Iranians that the White House might consider damaging? Certainly, as Jonathan suggested, the story has echoes of President Obama’s hot-mic moment with former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in which Obama promised the Russians more “flexibility” if he is reelected. Did he make such promises to the Iranians, but try harder to keep them under wraps? That is one possibility. Another is that the president may not want such a stark reminder of one of the most famous moments of the 2007 Democratic primary debates, when Obama said he would grant the enemies of America their own presidential-level summits. Obama said:

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As Jonathan wrote, the New York Times caused a stir over the weekend with its report that the Obama administration agreed to one-on-one talks with Iran over its nuclear program. The story has been interpreted (and reinterpreted) with respect to its utility to the president before tonight’s foreign policy debate depending on the perceived nature of the leaks. So when the story first broke, it was assumed the Obama administration thought this would be politically beneficial on the eve of the debate. When the vigorous denials came—convincing enough to get the Times to change its story without alerting its readers—the public seemed to reconsider.

It is now, therefore, seen as a negative story for the administration—unhelpful, as Obama officials might say. But why? What is it about face-to-face negotiations with the Iranians that the White House might consider damaging? Certainly, as Jonathan suggested, the story has echoes of President Obama’s hot-mic moment with former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in which Obama promised the Russians more “flexibility” if he is reelected. Did he make such promises to the Iranians, but try harder to keep them under wraps? That is one possibility. Another is that the president may not want such a stark reminder of one of the most famous moments of the 2007 Democratic primary debates, when Obama said he would grant the enemies of America their own presidential-level summits. Obama said:

OBAMA: I would. And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them — which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration — is ridiculous.

(APPLAUSE)

Now, Ronald Reagan and Democratic presidents like JFK constantly spoke to Soviet Union at a time when Ronald Reagan called them an evil empire. And the reason is because they understood that we may not trust them and they may pose an extraordinary danger to this country, but we had the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward.

And I think that it is a disgrace that we have not spoken to them. We’ve been talking about Iraq — one of the first things that I would do in terms of moving a diplomatic effort in the region forward is to send a signal that we need to talk to Iran and Syria because they’re going to have responsibilities if Iraq collapses.

“It is a disgrace,” Obama said, that we were not having face-to-face meetings with Iran, Syria, and the rest. Of course, it was not a disgrace, and negotiations at a more appropriate level were going on long before Obama entered the scene. But it’s also a reminder of the stark difference between Obama and Mitt Romney—and not just on policy. The 2007 version of Obama was just ramping up the personality cult, the creepy and worshipful following he acquired that culminated in the ridiculous spectacle of accepting his nomination amid Greek columns while claiming that the people’s reward for nominating him would begin with him turning back the ocean tides. Last night, Dan McLaughlin tweeted:

Obama’s election represented the apex of presidential personality cults. Romney’s would be its nadir.

Obama believed he could charm the Iranian mullahs the way he charmed American editorial boards. Obama’s defenders say he’s come a long way since his election. And maybe so. But he’s struggling to come up with a reason for voters to support him a second time. He’s mostly running from his (unpopular) “accomplishments” in his first term, and hasn’t laid out much of a plan for a second besides raising taxes. The last thing the president needs is a reminder of his past naïveté in world politics coupled with any hint that he’s right back where he started: an off-putting and by now discredited belief in the power of his personality and the force of his presence.

So perhaps the White House doesn’t believe that face-to-face negotiations with Iran’s leaders is a bad idea in and of itself. But the walk-back shows that the president’s team either thinks their plan is too unpopular to go public with (if, indeed, it is their plan), or that they don’t believe the public would trust Obama to carry out those negotiations. Neither is a sign of confidence.

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Why the First Debate Was the Only One That Really Counted

Much of the country will be watching tonight’s presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida. Both sides are playing, as they have before each of the previous two encounters between President Obama and Mitt Romney as well as the vice presidential tangle, the expectations game. And on an evening that will be devoted to foreign policy, both the president and his challenger are primed to exploit each other’s weaknesses and will hope to be proclaimed the victor by the spinners and the media. But if the polls are any judge, the odds are not much will be altered by the debate no matter which man comes off better.

Last week’s second debate was scored a clear victory for the president due to his livelier performance and Romney’s mistakes in the town hall format. But unless you believe the one outlier poll (Investors Business Daily/TIPP tracking poll), there doesn’t seem to have been any bounce for the president as a result of his getting the better of Romney. That means that even if Obama can repeat the same trick tonight, with Romney continuing to blunder, it probably won’t make a difference. That leaves us with the question as to why the first debate earlier this month in Denver proved so decisive. Was it that it was really more one-sided for Romney than Obama’s win at Hofstra University? Though it was, that doesn’t seem to be the answer, since if it was just a question of a margin of victory then Obama would have gotten more out of the second debate than he received.

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Much of the country will be watching tonight’s presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida. Both sides are playing, as they have before each of the previous two encounters between President Obama and Mitt Romney as well as the vice presidential tangle, the expectations game. And on an evening that will be devoted to foreign policy, both the president and his challenger are primed to exploit each other’s weaknesses and will hope to be proclaimed the victor by the spinners and the media. But if the polls are any judge, the odds are not much will be altered by the debate no matter which man comes off better.

Last week’s second debate was scored a clear victory for the president due to his livelier performance and Romney’s mistakes in the town hall format. But unless you believe the one outlier poll (Investors Business Daily/TIPP tracking poll), there doesn’t seem to have been any bounce for the president as a result of his getting the better of Romney. That means that even if Obama can repeat the same trick tonight, with Romney continuing to blunder, it probably won’t make a difference. That leaves us with the question as to why the first debate earlier this month in Denver proved so decisive. Was it that it was really more one-sided for Romney than Obama’s win at Hofstra University? Though it was, that doesn’t seem to be the answer, since if it was just a question of a margin of victory then Obama would have gotten more out of the second debate than he received.

Rather, the answer has to do with the relationship between the way Romney came across and the way Democrats had campaigned against him for the last year. While the president’s sleepwalk through the first debate seemed to betray his contempt for the process as well as for his opponent, the real news there was that by coming across as a reasonable, intelligent and well spoken candidate, Romney effectively undid several months and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Democratic ads that sought to portray him as an extremist, hateful plutocrat who tortured dogs, killed factory workers and destroyed the lives of others more or less for fun.

For all of our intense attention as to who is winning the debates on points and how strong their arguments may be or how many mistakes they make, the real test of these evenings is whether the candidate comes across as a plausible president of the United States. Since so much Democratic effort went into painting Romney as implausible if not completely unsuitable for the presidency, his Denver showing made it clear that the Obama campaign had overspent on hyperbole that was easily disproved if not completely debunked.

As Woody Allen is often quoted as saying, 80 percent of life is just showing up. Romney didn’t just show up in Denver. He showed up and showed the country what he was: an intelligent, fact-driven technocrat with some strong convictions about the economy and limited government as well as an appealing personality.

Having established this, it doesn’t really matter if he screwed up the Libya question last week or even if he does it again tonight–though if he does it will drive his campaign, if not the entire Republican Party, crazy.

As with the first debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980, the GOP candidate has destroyed the caricature that his opponents so carefully constructed. This hasn’t won him the election outright, since this close race can still go either way. But it does illustrate why the first debate will probably turn out to be the only one that really counts.

That shouldn’t stop Americans from watching the foreign policy tangle since it gives the country the opportunity to hear the candidates expound on the issues that are truly the primary responsibility of the president. But now that the American people know Romney is a reasonable alternative, it isn’t likely that anything he or Obama can say in Boca will change their minds.

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