As Republicans on Capitol Hill continue their public flogging of Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, it’s hard not to notice that a more senior administration official – who, arguably, might bear more responsibility for what went wrong in Benghazi – has largely escaped criticism.
We’re referring, of course, to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
True, a handful of right-wing news outlets have raised questions about why Ms. Clinton’s department failed to heed earlier warnings about security concerns in Benghazi. But the top Republican senators driving this story have so far chosen to leave Clinton largely out of the discussion.
It’s a remarkable turnaround for a woman who, not too long ago, was seen as such a lightning rod that she could have easily been called “GOP Enemy No. 1.” Today, the secretary of State is the de facto Democratic frontrunner for the 2016 nomination (though she has not made a decision about whether to run) and seems almost – as Saturday Night Live’s Darrell Hammond once famously called her husband – “bulletproof.”
The lack of criticism directed at Secretary Clinton over Benghazi may be in part a reflection of her years in the Senate – a still-clubby institution that instinctively protects its own. Clinton only served two terms, but she made the most of her time there, reaching across the aisle and developing close relationships.
In particular, Clinton’s friendship with Sen. John McCain appears to be paying dividends. As Politico’s Scott Wong writes Wednesday, in a detailed examination of the warm relationship between the two, Clinton’s “decade-old bipartisan friendship with McCain appears to have helped shield her from GOP fire – even as her agency finds itself in the thick of a partisan battle over Benghazi.”
It may also indicate how sharp Clinton’s own political instincts have become. Notably, it was not Clinton who went out on the Sunday shows with those now-infamous talking points. As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote recently, Rice should have been “savvy enough to wonder why the wily Hillary was avoiding the talk shows.”
But Clinton also seems to be benefitting from a larger rehabilitation of her reputation that began even before her husband left office. She earned praise during her time in the Senate for buckling down and seeming to eschew the spotlight (“a workhorse, not a showhorse” was the oft-repeated phrase).
And as secretary of State, Clinton’s status has been elevated even more – in part because, for the first time in decades, she’s been front and center in a decidedly nonpartisan role. Her above-the-partisan-fray image probably also got a lift from the fact that she gamely went to work for a former rival who arguably took the presidency away from her.
In the job, she has earned kudos, again, for hard work – most recently, for her role in brokering a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel. And she’s shown a fun side, boogieing in South Africa, partying at a nightclub in Cartegena, and playing along with the “Texts from Hillary” blog on Tumblr.
Indirectly, Clinton may also be profiting from the warm public embrace that her husband – like many former presidents whose time in office has receded sufficiently into the past – has been receiving of late (that same Gallup poll found that Mr. Clinton was No. 3 on the list of most admired men).
Of course, a 2016 presidential run would likely bring Hillary Clinton’s reputation back down to earth. As Dee Dee Myers, Bill Clinton's former press secretary, recently told the Daily Beast: “Once she was running for office as a partisan – as a Democrat – again, as opposed to being the global figure she is, she’d lose a little bit of that luster.”
For now, however, that luster is proving awfully powerful.