Despite the administration’s unashamed stonewalling over the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that cost four American lives, the event has nonetheless had a subterranean impact on the election campaign. Because the establishment media has given Benghazi only cursory coverage — manifestly colluding with the administration to ensure that the election would be over before it caught fire — that impact has been vague and uncertain. Almost none of the major pollsters have asked people about it, presumably thinking that most people would not have an opinion on something they knew nothing about.
It’s not an unreasonable assumption. But a Fox News poll of likely voters was published Wednesday showing they have decided opinions on what happened in Benghazi and what it means for the larger question of the president’s foreign policy. Here are a few of the poll’s findings:
1. On the specific matter of the Benghazi attack Americans are divided: 44 percent of voters think the administration tried to mislead Americans about what happened there, while 47 percent disagree. Republicans are much more likely to be critical than Democrats, as one would expect, but the electorally significant finding is that independent voters believe the administration tried to mislead Americans by a 49–42 percent margin.
2. When it comes to the wider question of U.S. policy towards Libya, the picture gets a little worse for the president: only 39 percent of voters approve of the job he is doing compared to 47 percent who disapprove.
3. When the question is widened to cover the administration’s policies towards both Libya and (the much more important country of) Egypt, 45 percent of voters think that they have “mostly failed” in comparison with 39 percent who believe they have “mostly succeeded.”
4. When the question is narrowed down to the administration’s attitude towards “radical Muslim terrorists,” only 26 percent of voters think that Obama has got it “about right” compared to 55 percent who think it has been “too soft” and a bravely dissenting 4 percent who call it “too tough.”
5. Only when the poll asks a generic question about the president’s handling of foreign policy does he get close to an overall majority: 49 percent approve and 44 percent disapprove.
These are disappointing results for a president and a campaign that expected to enjoy a strong advantage over Governor Romney on foreign policy. It is hard to see them as caused by anything other than the Benghazi issue. President Obama failed to score a knockout blow over foreign policy in the final debate, but he performed quite creditably throughout. He was even handed a win on points by the referee in the second debate over Benghazi itself. And in the remainder of the campaign foreign policy has not been a major item of controversy. If we were to judge by public discussion, speeches on the hustings, and reports in the media, we would expect Obama to be resting easily on his international laurels. Instead he’s struggling to stay afloat. And Benghazi is the only available explanation.
That tells us something both about modern communications and the likely course of the next week in politics. Benghazi entered the public mind — and influenced its opinion on wider foreign policy issues — through the informal media. As commentators have been pointing out for almost a decade, the establishment media have lost their role as gatekeepers. They alone no longer determine what is a news story and what is not. Or a scandal. Or a legitimate political issue. Etc., etc., etc. News and information now get to people through talk radio, the Internet, social media, opinion journals, the blogosphere, and foreign newspapers (that are either more enterprising or less ideologically conformist) on the web. As a mainstream-news organization that has standards at least as high as its establishment rivals but that is a traitor to its liberal class, Fox News plays a crucial role in this new information system by using its resources to gather information and break stories in a way its informal allies cannot usually do. It is this informal news network that has broken new ground about the Benghazi story “under the radar” (i.e., under the nose of its formal rivals.)
As a result the Benghazi story, while being kept out of the headlines and the network news, has spread throughout the country and subverted the president’s reputation on foreign policy. The distaste with which the establishment media has treated it may even have made matters worse for the Obama campaign. It gives the impression that someone has something to hide and yet it simultaneously mutes or silences voices that might have been skeptical about the story. And a gradual movement away from Obama takes place without people being really aware of the fact.
That is probably one factor — contributory but important — helping to explain the long, slow, surge towards Romney that has occurred since the first debate. My own sense is that this surge was briefly halted and maybe slightly reversed by the destructive arrival of Sandy. But as the partisan battle resumes — and it certainly will whatever non-partisan pieties are uttered in the meantime — so the spread of the Benghazi story is likely to resume too, inflicting further subterranean damage on the president. And it is probably too late for the Obama campaign to risk dragging the Benghazi episode into the spotlight in order to get its own version of the story across. It would look all too much like panic and guilt.