Is Benghazi Really A Damaging Political Scandal?

Where's The Evidence It's Hurting Obama, Clinton Or Democrats?

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Right on cue as Republicans roll out the House select committee on Benghazi, much of the Beltway media chatter centers on what a looming problem the new investigation poses for Hillary Clinton and her possible presidential run in 2016. The commentary follows more than on year of similar proclamations that ongoing Benghazi pursuits would do damage to President Obama's second term, which in turn could doom Democrats in the next two election cycles.

That conventional wisdom, of course, closely mirrors GOP talking points about a "scandal" whose central questions were long ago answered. And whose blockbuster claims were long ago debunked. ("Stand down" orders were definitely not given.) By playing along, the press is just furthering Republican goals of portraying Benghazi as a pending Democratic doomsday.  

But is there any evidence journalists can point to support the conservative assumption that additional hearings and endless churning for Benghazi headlines by Republicans pose a political problem for Obama and Clinton? Or that the issue will still loom large on Election Day 2016, which is approximately 900 days away? (Note that when Americans vote in 2016, the Benghazi attack will have taken place more than 1,500 days earlier.)

Reporters like to quote Republican operatives, such as Tim Miller, executive director of the GOP opposition-research group America Rising, who claim Benghazi could cripple Clinton's campaign. But he's paid to say that. Where's the independent proof to back up that claim? Journalists rarely offer much. Instead they seem to rely on the assumption that the mere existence of hearings about an email about a memo about Sunday morning TV appearances is damaging. (ABC News: "Scandal City.")

But Clinton's large and unprecedented polling advantage with regards to the 2016 Democratic primary season represent proof Benghazi that hasn't damaged her electoral chances within the party. And polls pitting her in hypothetical match-ups with possible Republican contenders continue to show her with an overwhelming advantage. While her overall approval ratings have dipped as expected from their high as she's pivoted from secretary of state to a potential presidential candidate, she remains an incredibly popular political figure. 

If you're looking for an actual example of a potential White House candidate whose standing completely crumbled in the wake of a legitimate scandal, look no further than New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Following the revelations this winter of the New Jersey lane-closing controversy, Christie lost one-third of his national favorable rating, according to NBC News/Wall Street Journal polling. And he's gone from the leading candidate in the GOP primary to the middle of the pack.

Some journalists point to a Pew Research poll this year, which showed 15 percent of respondents selected "Benghazi" when asked to name the most negative thing about Hillary's Clinton's career. That's proof, scribes suggest, that the terror attack and the controversy surrounding it has done damage to her reputation. Yet the same Pew poll found an overwhelming 67 percent of people approved of Clinton's performance as secretary of state; the position she held when the Benghazi attack took place.

Nonetheless, the GOP-fed narrative remains strong. "As much as she would like to escape the attack's long shadow, it will continue to dog Hillary Clinton," National Journal recently claimed, insisting the Benghazi controversy represents perhaps "the biggest thing" Clinton will have to deal with if she runs for president.

On ABC's This Week, Jonathan Karl pressed Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) on "how big a problem is [Benghazi] for Hillary Clinton," while the Christian Science Monitor proclaimed the story was "quickly growing into a potentially devastating target of opportunity for the GOP."  And Politico announced that last week represented Clinton's worst political week in 16 months, in part because Republicans had formed a Benghazi select committee.

Do these news organizations point to anything factual about the already-told and re-told Benghazi story that could cause major political problems for Clinton in the coming months? No. Journalists simply assume that if Republicans hold Benghazi hearings, Clinton will be damaged. 

It's the same erroneous assumption many in the media have maintained about Obama and Benghazi.

Note that last Friday afternoon, Speaker of the House John Boehner announced on Twitter which Republican members had been appointed to the Benghazi select committee. Less than one hour later, Gallup released the results of its presidential daily tracking poll, which placed Obama's approval rating at his highest mark in twelve months.

Yes, Obama's Gallup mark then dipped a bit in the days that followed. But the point is Obama's Gallup approval during the last twelve months has remained remarkably consistent, usually falling within a five-point window. (By contrast, George Bush's Gallup approval rating was often in a free-fall during his second term.) Huffington Post's Pollster model similarly shows Obama approval rating hasn't budged since Republicans re-launched Benghazi, yet again, late last month. There's just no indication that the Republicans' endless regurgitation of the Benghazi issue is affecting the president's standing with the public.

That same lack of public connection over the alleged White House cover-up was evident in May of 2013, the last time the GOP, with the help of the Beltway press, ginned up a significant Benghazi push. Back then, the public paid "limited attention" to the machinations, according to Pew Research.

Moreover, recent history suggests hollow, Republican-sponsored "scandals" don't win over voters. Just ask Mitt Romney and Bob Dole. Keep in mind, the Benghazi attack occurred, and Republicans first unleashed partisan attacks, at the height of the 2012 election. The result? Obama easily won re-election over Romney.

"Moments that many thought would matter--the attack in Benghazi and Hurricane Sandy--were less consequential," concluded John Sides and Lynn Vavreck in their  book, The Gamble, Choices And Chances in the 2012 Election, a detailed  examination of which campaign issues moved voters, and which ones fell flat. 

During the Clinton years, Republicans trademarked their approach to endless, futile "cover-up" investigations on Capitol Hill. The result? Bill Clinton was elected to a second term in a landslide victory over Dole, Democrats in the House defied historical trends and picked up seats in the 1998 midterm elections, and Clinton left office with a mighty 66 percent approval rating.

So again I ask, what hard evidence can reporters and pundits point to support the assumption that the GOP's latest round of political theater means trouble for Democrats?

Fox News Channel, National Journal Group, ABC News
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.