Democrats' Benghazi dilemma: Join 'blatantly political' congressional probe?

House Republicans are zeroing in on what they claim were Obama administration missteps on the Benghazi attack. Democrats must decide whether to participate or boycott an investigation they see as highly partisan.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks at her weekly news briefing Friday. House Democrats stand deeply divided over whether to participate in a Republican-led investigation of the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.

Making a partisan big deal out of scandal (or the perception of scandal) is always a bit of a gamble.

Republicans flogged then-president Bill Clinton with impeachment over his extra-marital affair with Monica Lewinsky, which certainly didn’t do Al Gore any good a year later when Gore lost – in the US Supreme Court, not in the popular vote – a very close and very divisive election to George W. Bush.

But as Gallup has reported, “Clinton weathered the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998 with fairly high personal ratings – averaging 58 percent that year – and ended his presidency on a positive note, with a 57 percent rating in December 2000.” Last year, Gallup ranked him the fourth “most admired man” – between Pope Francis and the Rev. Billy Graham.

Now, congressional Republicans are going after the Obama administration over the 2012 attack by Islamic militants on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, which killed American Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other US personnel.

Speaker John Boehner has named a special committee to investigate charges that the Obama administration white-washed or covered up missteps in the US response to the attack. Rep. Darrell Issa, (R) of California, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has issued a subpoena intended to force Secretary of State John Kerry to testify before the panel about Benghazi.

Kerry’s predecessor – former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who leads any possible opponents in the 2016 presidential race – is an obvious target.

“It’s clear that there are implications for 2016,” Rep. Steve Stivers, (R) of Ohio, told Bloomberg News.

But as Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole warned, “It’s a very two-edged sword.”

There’s concern among Republicans that in probing Benghazi, “the peril at the polls is at least as strong as the chance for political gain,” Bloomberg reported. “That could prove especially so if it appears the party is talking about the deaths of four Americans in the attacks mainly as a way to win votes.”

Democrats dismiss GOP efforts here as “a blatantly political and partisan effort,” as White House spokesman Jay Carney put it.

“It is nothing more than a political ploy, because continuing to focus obsessively on repealing the Affordable Care Act has lost its luster,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who chairs the Democratic National Committee, said at a Monitor-hosted press breakfast this week.

Still, it could be a move that pays off for the GOP – at least that’s what several recent polls suggest.

Most voters suspect the Obama administration hasn’t been completely forthcoming about how it reacted to the Benghazi attack, Rasmussen reported this week, and just over half think the Benghazi matter deserves further investigation.

“Only 32 percent of Likely U.S. Voters are satisfied with the administration’s explanation of its response to the Benghazi situation in September 2012, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey,” the polling organization found. “Fifty percent are not satisfied with the administration’s explanation.”

A Fox News poll in April had similar results: By 60-34 percent, voters want Congress to continue investigating Benghazi, including 42 percent of Democrats.

“By a margin of 61-26 percent, voters believe that the White House is ‘trying to cover-up’ what happened in Benghazi rather than ‘being open and transparent,’” Fox reported. “About a third of Democrats (33 percent), two-thirds of independents (66 percent) and almost all Republicans (87 percent) say the Obama administration is hiding something on Benghazi.”

Asked in a Washington Times poll, “Do you think the Benghazi scandal will hurt former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton if she chooses to run for president in 2016?” 83 percent said “yes.”

Meanwhile, Democrats have to decide whether to take part as the minority in the House’s special investigative committee – they’d have five seats and Republicans have seven – where they could at least weigh in, or to boycott committee hearings.

That still hadn’t been decided by the end of the day Friday.

Speaker Boehner has rejected the Democrats' request for equal membership on the panel. Democrats say they'll participate nonetheless if they get GOP guarantees of fair access to documents, a voice on subpoenas, and an equal chance to question witnesses.

"We must have standards," Pelosi said at a news conference after Democrats held a strategy session Friday morning. Later, in a letter to Boehner, she held firm to her objections, saying the current rules would not prevent a repeat of the "unacceptable and repeated abuses" that she said have occurred in the parallel investigation by Rep. Darrell Issa.

"We don't want a kangaroo court," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, (D) of Maryland, told reporters. "We think that this whole Benghazi hearing is a waste of taxpayer dollars, but if at the very least they're going to establish a fair process then we could participate."

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.