Democrats Put Hillary Clinton at Risk by Dismissing Benghazi Criticism

New poll finds the attack still hurts Clinton, and her allies are doing her no favors by pretending it’s a nonissue.

Hillary Clinton arrives to speak on September 12, 2012 on the killing of US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and 3 staff members at the US Consulate building in Benghazi, Libya, from the Treaty Room of the US Department of State, in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
March 5, 2014, midnight

Demo­crats have ad­op­ted a dis­missive, al­most be­mused pos­ture when it comes to the con­ser­vat­ive fix­a­tion with the 2012 at­tack on the dip­lo­mat­ic out­post in Benghazi, Libya, con­fid­ent in the know­ledge that the facts bear little re­semb­lance to what they see as the Right’s con­spir­acy the­or­ies.

On one hand, they’re cor­rect. Count­less con­gres­sion­al com­mit­tee re­ports, ad­min­is­tra­tion probes, and journ­al­ist­ic in­vest­ig­a­tions have cleared then-Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton of any wrong­do­ing, and found there was little else the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion could have done once the at­tacks began. “Ghazi” has be­come short­hand for a par­tis­an-driv­en scan­dal.

But Demo­crats are in deni­al if they think Benghazi won’t be an is­sue in the 2016 pres­id­en­tial race, should Clin­ton run.

A new poll from Pew Re­search Cen­ter and USA Today shows the danger. When re­spond­ents were asked to name in their own words the biggest neg­at­ive for Clin­ton from her long ca­reer in pub­lic ser­vice, the most com­mon re­sponse was Benghazi. Sure, it’s only 15 per­cent who gave that an­swer, but that’s still a lot.

And it’s not just Re­pub­lic­ans; Demo­crats also picked it more of­ten than any­thing else, with 8 per­cent list­ing the at­tack as Clin­ton’s biggest neg­at­ive.

Just be­cause Demo­crats be­lieve there was noth­ing ne­far­i­ous about Clin­ton’s role in Benghazi doesn’t mean there are no grounds from which to cri­ti­cize her. Be­sides, they should have learned from “a gov­ern­ment takeover of health care” and “you didn’t build that” that bump­er-stick­er slo­gans can still de­liv­er blows. That’s polit­ics.

Re­spond­ents to the Pew sur­vey wer­en’t giv­en a list of op­tions to choose from, but had to vo­lun­teer their own an­swers — al­most 20 per­cent couldn’t come up with any neg­at­ive at all — and it’s not a good thing for Clin­ton that a plur­al­ity of voters had Benghazi on the top of their minds.

Bill Clin­ton and his dal­li­ances were the next most fre­quent an­swer, at 9 per­cent. The rest of the re­sponses — her party af­fil­i­ation, “gen­er­al dis­like,” “dis­hon­estly,” and “ca­reer politi­cian” — were offered by 2 per­cent or 3 per­cent of re­spond­ents each.

And you can bet that Re­pub­lic­ans will put Benghazi front and cen­ter if Clin­ton runs, says Tim Miller, the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Amer­ica Rising, a Re­pub­lic­an su­per PAC ded­ic­ated to op­pos­i­tion re­search. While he ac­know­ledges that there’s been some “silly-sea­son” claims on Benghazi from his own side, “there is a cent­ral ar­gu­ment about com­pet­ence and pre­pared­ness that’s worth dis­cuss­ing.”

His group is work­ing on an “au­thor­it­at­ive tick­tock” of the at­tack based on ex­ist­ing sources, which he says will be used to raise dif­fi­cult ques­tions about Clin­ton and the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s hand­ling of events sur­round­ing the at­tack, from dip­lo­mat­ic se­cur­ity be­fore­hand to how the White House re­spon­ded af­ter­ward.

Clin­ton’s ten­ure at the State De­part­ment is one of her biggest as­sets, as the Pew poll clearly shows. But just 12 per­cent vo­lun­teered it as the most pos­it­ive as­pect of her ca­reer, slightly few­er than those who cited Benghazi as the most neg­at­ive.

It would be polit­ic­al mal­prac­tice for Re­pub­lic­ans to leave her ten­ure at State un­ques­tioned, and Benghazi rep­res­ents the clearest way for them to go after Clin­ton’s biggest strength. “The over­throw of [Muam­mar] Qad­dafi is seen as one of her sig­na­ture ac­com­plish­ments,” Miller notes of the former Liby­an dic­tat­or.

Benghazi un­der­mines one of Clin­ton’s key mes­sages, says Katie Pack­er Gage, who was Mitt Rom­ney’s deputy cam­paign man­ager in 2012 and re­cently star­ted a con­sult­ing firm aimed at help­ing Re­pub­lic­ans per­form bet­ter with fe­male voters. “When she ran last time, she made the case that she was the one who could take that 3:00 a.m. phone call. Well, that 3:00 a.m. phone call came for her, from Benghazi, and I’m not sure that was a par­tic­u­larly strong mo­ment for her as sec­ret­ary of State,” Gage says.

Demo­crats point out that the at­tack didn’t seem to cause Pres­id­ent Obama much harm dur­ing the 2012 elec­tion, even though it was much fresh­er in people’s minds then. And they ar­gue that the Re­pub­lic­an ob­ses­sion with the at­tack could back­fire when they over­reach, as House Over­sight Com­mit­tee Chair­man Dar­rell Issa has while try­ing to tie Clin­ton to Benghazi.

Be­sides, it’s only 15 per­cent of re­spond­ents, they say. “Un­like many in the GOP who re­main ob­sessed with point­ing fin­gers, Sec­ret­ary Clin­ton im­me­di­ately put policies in­to place to en­sure this tragedy nev­er oc­curs again,” says Ad­rienne El­rod, the com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or of Cor­rect the Re­cord, a Demo­crat­ic su­per PAC. “This poll shows that the GOP’s re­lent­less at­tempts to politi­cize a tragedy aren’t work­ing and that a ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans don’t buy it.”

But in a tight race, 15 per­cent might be something Clin­ton needs to ser­i­ously worry about. It might be­hoove her al­lies to stop laugh­ing at it.

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