Republicans Replay 1998 on Benghazi

House select committee inquiry could backfire.
Back to the future. Photographer: Harry Hamburg/NY Daily News via Getty Images

With political indicators and historical cycles in their favor, Republicans are pushing the envelope to further energize their base with a full assault on the head of the opposition.

It's 1998, and House Republicans have moved to charge President Bill Clinton with an impeachable high crime for lying about sex.

Parties that don't control the White House invariably gain in midterm elections. But the anti-Clinton drive energized Democrats. That year, Republicans failed to gain congressional seats in a midterm for the first time since 1934 and for the first time in a president's second term since 1822.

In 2014, the Republicans risk a smaller-scale fiasco with the creation of a special committee to investigate the 2012 tragedy in Benghazi, Libya, where four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, were killed. House Republicans see this as a political two-fer: an attack on President Barack Obama and on the Democrats' presumptive 2016 nominee, Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state during the attack. This strategy is aimed at exciting the party's base and raising campaign cash.

Republican leaders say the purpose of the inquiry is to prove the administration initially tried to protect Obama in the middle of his re-election campaign by falsely claiming that the attack was a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Muslim video and not a carefully planned act of terrorism.

Republicans also aim to prove that the military response was inadequate and that there was a cover-up. They have seized on the White House's failure to turn over a September 2012 memo from National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes that contains talking points on the tragedy. Representative Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican who was tapped to chair the special committee created after the House Oversight panel embarrassed the party with clumsy theatrics, has called the inquiry "a trial."

The administration inflicted some of this pain on itself. The White House did try to spin the incident initially to protect the president, and the Rhodes document -- routine fare -- should have been turned over. But the real lesson of Benghazi is how dangerous the aftermath of the overthrow of a foreign dictator can be. After Iraq and Afghanistan, that's not a favorite Republican topic.

Furthermore, the details of Benghazi have been aired repeatedly, with more than a dozen congressional hearings, several committee reports, scores of interviews and 25,000 pages of documents turned over. A credible commission headed by respected diplomat Tom Pickering and Admiral Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, faulted the State Department for "systemic failures" and "management deficiencies" in protecting American outposts. It just didn't provide the evidence of lies and cover-ups Republicans wanted.

Mullen and other military leaders say it wouldn’t have been possible to send U.S. forces to Benghazi to save the ambassador. Gowdy, who in winning his congressional seat four years ago was a staunch supporter of the Iraq War, questions those assertions.

A comprehensive post-mortem of the tragedy by the New York Times, including eyewitness testimony, concluded that although there were warning signs before the attack, it wasn't, as some Republicans charge, directed by groups sympathetic to al-Qaeda and there had been a spontaneous response to the video.

Some Republicans worry that with voters focusing on other issues, this inquiry could boomerang.

"There's not much there or it's too complicated," says veteran strategist Ed Rollins. Even South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a vehement critic of Obama on Benghazi, worries that Republicans will get "burned" if they are seen as playing partisan politics.

A superb analysis by Washington journalist Michael Hirsh, for Politico magazine, details the flimsiness of the most serious Benghazi charges. There's "little evidence that Clinton or anyone else in the Administration engaged in a cover-up." The Republican goal, he writes, is to make the attacks on Hillary Clinton a refresher on what she would face in 2016, making her more reluctant to run.

Rehashing or embellishing the Benghazi tragedy by beating up on Clinton might affect her and voter enthusiasm this fall. Rather than aiding Republicans, however, it may bolster her resolve and standing with voters and energize Democrats' interest in the fall campaigns. Remember 1998.

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