WASHINGTON — Steady drips of information about a horrific night in Libya are fueling Republican arguments and ads designed to fire up the conservative base and undercut the Democrats’ early favorite for president in 2016.
Strategists in both parties disagree on the issue’s power to influence elections next year and beyond. But after eight months of trying, Democrats are still struggling to move past the terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi last Sept. 11 that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Democrats insist that an independent inquiry, the dismissal of several State Department officials, and nine congressional hearings leave little new to say on the matter. But Friday turned up the sort of nuggets that feed conservative activists’ belief that a major scandal may be at hand.
Newly revealed communications show that senior State Department officials pressed for changes in the talking points that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice used a few days after the Benghazi attacks. These senior officials expressed concerns that Congress might criticize the Obama administration for ignoring warnings of a growing threat in Libya.
The White House has contended it only made stylistic changes to the intelligence agency talking points, in which Rice suggested that spontaneous protests over an anti-Islamic video set off the deadly attack. The new details suggest a greater degree of political sensitivity and involvement by the White House and State Department.
Rice and others eventually acknowledged that the Benghazi assault was a premeditated terrorist attack. Republicans say her Sept. 16 televised remarks were just the start of administration efforts to mislead Americans about what happened.
The incident was heavily politicized from the start, occurring less than two months before President Barack Obama’s re-election and while Hillary Rodham Clinton was secretary of state.
The former New York senator and first lady, who infuriates many conservatives, ranks high in speculation about Democrats in the hunt for the 2016 presidential nomination.
Friday brought a fresh round of conservative broadsides against Clinton, Obama and the administration’s handling of the Benghazi matter.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a possible Republican presidential contender, wrote in The Washington Times restating his view that Obama should have fired Clinton.
Campaigning later in Iowa, Paul said he thinks the attack “precludes Hillary Clinton from ever holding office.”
The conservative group American Crossroads released a 90-second video asking if Clinton was “part of a cover-up.” The video, like emails and letters from several other groups, asked for political donations.
Benghazi hands Republicans some political opportunities, although none without complications. It may be difficult for average voters to sift through the chronology, assess blame or even follow the logic of GOP arguments.
For instance, claims that Clinton and others ignored calls for greater diplomatic security in Libya might be linked to the four American deaths.
But accusations about the post-attack talking points, which sometimes seem to dominate the current debate, have nothing to do with possibly preventing the deaths, thus robbing them of that moral heft.
Democrats note that an independent inquiry found that the State Department badly mishandled security needs in Libya.