Hillary Clinton: the real GOP target on Benghazi?

Hillary Clinton was secretary of State when terrorists killed the US ambassador and other Americans in Benghazi, Libya. Republicans aim to make that a major issue if she runs for president.

Susan Walsh/AP
Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks after receiving the 2013 Lantos Human Rights Prize during a ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, December 2013.

Republican-led congressional investigations of the issue known simply as “Benghazi” are becoming a major political irritation for the Obama White House. It gets in the way of the “Year of Action” – government by executive order – President Obama is touting as his way of dealing with what he sees as an obstructive Congress.

But for the Democratic front-runner in the 2016 presidential campaign – Hillary Rodham Clinton – it’s quickly growing into a potentially devastating target of opportunity for the GOP as it searches for a way to head off a Clinton political dynasty.

“Republicans aren't going to let Benghazi go, unless and until they find that it doesn't serve as a liability for Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time of the attack,” writes New Republic senior editor Brian Beutler on the magazine’s website. “And while we know that the conspiracy theory that sparked and sustains Benghazimania has been debunked, we don't know whether the right's obsession with it will become a real hindrance for Clinton if she runs for the presidency, or if it will backfire against Republicans.”

So far, her Republican critics see Mrs. Clinton as very vulnerable here, which could become more than just a distraction for her and her supporters starting to line up with endorsements – as US Sen. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia did the other day – and fundraising.

It could be a good tactical, if not strategic, move.

A year ago, not long after the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, which killed the US ambassador and three other American personnel, Clinton saw a big drop in her favorability ratings.

“The drop in her favorability is substantial among men, Republicans, and independent voters,” Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said at the time. “One reason for her drop may be that 48 percent of voters blame her either a little or a lot for the death of the American ambassador in Benghazi.”

On Friday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, issued a subpoena intended to force Clinton’s successor – Secretary of State John Kerry – to testify before the panel about Benghazi.

Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner says he'll establish a special committee to investigate the Benghazi attack.

Will Clinton, secretary of State at the time of the Benghazi attack, be invited (or compelled) to testify? She’s not one to shrink from a political attack, and the former US senator certainly knows how to navigate a politically charged investigative committee room.

But as Slate’s Dave Weigel tweeted, “The nice thing about having a Benghazi select committee is you can roll it over into the Hillary presidency.”

The recent reignition of the Benghazi blame game came with the unearthing of an e-mail written shortly after the attack by deputy White House national security adviser Ben Rhodes. The purpose of the e-mail was to help prepare then-National Security Adviser Susan Rice for a round of TV news shows in which she would be the first senior official to offer the administration’s view of the attack.

The e-mail stressed that Ms. Rice should say Benghazi was prompted by a video insulting to Muslims that had sparked widespread protests in the region. Rice’s goal should be to “underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy,” Mr. Rhodes wrote. Another goal should be to “reinforce the President and Administration’s strength and steadiness in dealing with difficult challenges.”

Republicans have jumped all over that.

"What was the purpose of this e-mail?" Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina asked on CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday. "To protect the White House politically from the damage that could've been done from the truth coming out about Benghazi, six, seven weeks before the [2012] election…. They created a political smoke screen."

Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D) of California suggested that Democrats may boycott Speaker Boehner’s special committee on Benghazi. "It's a tremendous red herring and a waste of taxpayer resources," Mr. Schiff said.

But it’s not going away, and Clinton may have no choice but to appear – although not in a way that becomes a media circus, Bush administration official John Bolton suggested Sunday on Fox News.

"The public hearings that get so much attention are the last things that should happen," Mr. Bolton said. "We need former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton giving hours and hours of depositions before they put her back out in public testimony. That's the way to find out what happened.
"You can't get effective investigations done with members of Congress alternating – asking questions for five minutes – of somebody who's articulate and knows how to dodge questions," Bolton added. "What needs to happen are extensive, hour-after-hour depositions."

Followed, no doubt, by committee leaks aimed at undercutting Democrats’ likely lead presidential candidate. (In mock presidential polls, Clinton beats every likely GOP candidate by wide margins.)

“The real story about Benghazi is what are the consequences for having a light footprint in a chaotic country post-invasion?” NBC’s David Gregory said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” the other day. “That’s the ongoing story. And by the way, a story that candidate Clinton, if she becomes a candidate, will have to face.”

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