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.