With Benghazi, has Hillary Clinton hit what President Obama might call a “bump on the road” in her widely assumed bid for the presidency in 2016?
Some Republicans say yes. According to National Public Radio, “high-profile Republican, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who is displaying signs of being interested in a 2016 presidential run, recently told a Missouri audience that Clinton has disqualified herself for future public office by her actions.” At a “Spirit of Reagan” award ceremony, Paul said that, “I think that her dereliction of duty -- I don't question her motives -- but her dereliction of duty and her lack of leadership should preclude her from holding any other office.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the top Democrat on the House oversight committee looking into Benghazi, summarizes the response of the defenders of former Secretary of State Clinton. He says that Republicans are using the witnesses' statements at the Benghazi hearings for “political purposes.”
The backdrop to Mrs. Clinton’s situation is what the news media call the “narrative” of her public and political life. Consistent with Congressman Cummings’ framing, that narrative -- pushed by Mrs. Clinton’s admirers in her party and the press—is that she is so elevated in stature that she is “above” the petty bickering of “politics.”
This is patently absurd. Mrs. Clinton is clearly comfortable with her own brand of “political purposes.” As Bill Clinton’s wife, as a former First Lady in Arkansas and Washington, as a U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State and before that as a political activist, she has been deeply involved in politics going all the way back to her college days.
Indeed, she served as a researcher for the House Judiciary Committee about procedures, grounds and standards for impeachment at the time of Watergate. And now, with Benghazi, in a supreme irony, the same questions are being asked about Mrs. Clinton as were asked about former President Richard Nixon concerning Watergate:
What did she know and when did she know it? What did she do (or not do)? Did she lie, distort, cover up and evade responsibility? Did she place politics above ethics? Did she seek deniability over accountability? Did her staff and advisors peddle false stories about causes and effects? Did they try to impugn the integrity and motives of those who have criticized her? Was she devious and complicit? What were the broader human and political costs of her involvement in the events being investigated? How does all this affect her legacy and reputation (her past) and what implications does it have for her future as a public figure and a participant in public life?
Abraham Lincoln said that, “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.”
The public sentiment about Hillary Clinton has traditionally been sky-high, as measured by the Gallup Poll. Three months after the Benghazi attack, in December of 2012, a Gallup Poll found Mrs. Clinton to be “the most admired woman in the world,” with 21 percent selecting her and with First Lady Michelle Obama a distant second at five percent. It was the 17th time in 20 years that Mrs. Clinton had taken that title.
The challenge to the public sentiment about Hillary Clinton with the Benghazi hearings depends on its effect on Mrs. Clinton’s carefully constructed personal and political narrative, which has always depended on a paradox: that she is both a victor and a victim.
Her supporters celebrate what they believe is Mrs. Clinton’s superior competence, intelligence, compassion and her toughness and resilience when under attack by her critics. In this, they portray her as a victor.
Simultaneously, Mrs. Clinton’s narrative depicts her as a victim. During her husband’s enmeshment in a scandal about his affair with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, Mrs. Clinton told NBC’s Matt Lauer that there was a “vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president." Mrs. Clinton’s playing of the victim card and her conspiracy theories have encompassed an abundance of charges against her over the years, including her questionable investing record (Whitewater real estate, cattle futures trading) and her role in the so-called “Filegate” and “Travelgate” allegations.
Whether she is presented as a victor or a victim, the basis of Mrs. Clinton’s narrative has always been that she is a sympathetic figure, besieged by unsympathetic critics. But the officials testifying in the Benghazi hearings are initially coming across as sincere and emotionally sympathetic. The parents of the slain Americans at Benghazi who have appeared in TV interviews have likewise been sincere and emotionally sympathetic.
In her belated Senate testimony about Benghazi back in January, Mrs. Clinton looked markedly unsympathetic -- angry, aggressive and insensitive -- as she pounded the desk and shouted, “What difference, at this point, does it make?”
Even if a “smoking gun” is revealed about Mrs. Clinton’s involvement in Benghazi, it is wise to consider that she has survived other smoking guns in her and her husband’s past. The power of her personal and political narrative -- with its soap opera-like ups and downs -- is ingrained in America’s consciousness. And in good and bad times for her, Americans in Gallup polls keep expressing their admiration for her.
We are three years away from 2016 -- and time and Hillary Clinton’s narrative are likely to work in her favor.