How Benghazi will shape 2016 presidential race

Even before the GOP-led House report on Benghazi, Hillary Clinton's biggest critics were shifting their attention to her emails. But the report gives them a fresh rallying point. 

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
House Benghazi Committee Chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy (R) meets with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington in January. On Tuesday, he released his committee's report.

The final report of the House Select Committee on Benghazi is out, and the news for Hillary Clinton is both good and bad.

On the plus side, for Mrs. Clinton, the committee didn’t make any major new revelations, in general, and did not target her for blame specifically. The 800-page report affirmed the conclusions of previous investigations – that the United States’ national security apparatus, including the Clinton-led State Department, was ill-equipped to protect the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, and had not heeded warnings about risks to the facilities.  

On the down side, Benghazi is back in the spotlight, and that, by definition, is bad news for the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee. The retelling of the Sept. 11, 2012, terror attack, which left the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans dead, brings the worst episode of Clinton’s four years as secretary of State back to the headlines. 

As a rallying cry for Clinton opponents, Benghazi will remain an emotionally charged issue up to Election Day and beyond, if she wins.

“The Benghazi report is still critically important to the true believers on the Republican side, who, no matter what, will believe that Hillary Clinton didn’t do everything she might have done” to save American lives, says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

But for most voters, Benghazi is old news, and a complicated story that has been highly politicized by Clinton’s opponents. Questions raised by the episode about her honesty are already baked into voters’ assessments of her.

More important to her political future is the controversy that emerged from the Benghazi inquiry: the revelation that she used a private email server while secretary of State, potentially putting national security at risk.

“For those who believe that Hillary Clinton is fatally flawed, Benghazi was the repository for one’s presumptions,” says Mr. Jillson. “That’s now passing away and email is the current repository for those views.”

The email issue came to a head last October, when Clinton testified before the select Benghazi committee. Even then, voters told pollsters that her handling of email was more important than Benghazi, at least as an indicator of her character. 

The Benghazi committee became tarnished as politically driven, especially after a comment by House majority leader Kevin McCarthy (R) of California in which he talked about how Clinton’s “numbers are dropping” after the creation of the committee.   

On the eve of the hearing, 3 in 4 Americans believed the select Benghazi panel was politically motivated, according to a CNN/ORC poll

Clinton’s handling of emails while secretary of State remains under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and would upend her candidacy if the inquiry results in an indictment. But most political observers don’t expect an indictment, according to news reports.

On Tuesday, Clinton said of the Benghazi report, “It’s time to move on.”

“While [the select committee] unfortunately took on a partisan tinge,” she said in Denver, “I want us to stay focused on what I've always wanted us to stay focused on and that is the important work of diplomacy and development." 

Partisan divisions within the committee – both between Democrats and Republicans, and within the Republican membership – underscored the highly charged nature of the issue. The Democrats on the committee released their own report on Monday, in an effort to preempt the Republican report. And two conservative Republicans on the committee issued their own 48-page addendum, criticizing how the Obama administration handled the attacks and the aftermath.

The main report, by committee chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy (R) of South Carolina and fellow Republicans, accused Clinton and the State Department for behaving in a “shameful” manner by not turning over documents, including private emails, that could have shed light on what happened during and after the attacks.

And so Benghazi is likely to remain a flashpoint for conservatives as long as Clinton is in the political arena. To her biggest critics, it’s part of the narrative of dishonesty and scandal that has marked her (and her husband’s) decades in public life. To her strongest supporters, it’s a continuation of the partisan witch hunt that has sought to destroy her.

To everyone in between, it’s part of the noise emanating from Washington at a time of hyperpartisanship. Whether that constant swirl of controversy hurts her among swing voters in November is an open question. But with Donald Trump as her opponent, a controversial figure in his own right with even higher unfavorability ratings, Clinton can probably ride it out.

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