If you’re outside that furious little circle of humans who believe Benghazi Is Worse Than Watergate, you may not fully understand why that circle is so furious. I didn’t for a long time, but I think I’ve cracked it. See, it’s not just that allegedly awful decisions were made on the ground. And it’s not even just that the administration supposedly lied in the aftermath to cover up its incompetence. No, the anger has a political end point, which is that this supposed cover-up sealed Barack Obama’s reelection over Mitt Romney and kept the rightful occupant from moving into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Summaries of the events on the right almost never fail to include language like this from a recent Wall Street Journal editorial: “The reasons Benghazi is important do not have to be rehearsed here. An American outpost, virtually undefended, was attacked by armed and organized al Qaeda-associated militants on the anniversary of 9/11 and four were left dead, including the U.S. ambassador. It happened eight weeks before the 2012 presidential election. From day one White House management and leadership focused on spin and an apparent fiction. Did they deliberately mislead and misdirect? Why was there no military response? Who is responsible?”
These questions are worth exploring. (Even I agree with that—and they have been, eight times by eight separate bodies.) But they have no real political punch without that one sentence in the middle there. Conservatives seem absolutely convinced that if not for the Obama “cover-up” on Benghazi, Romney would have won the election.
There’s one problem with that view: It’s ridiculous. Totally ahistorical. In fact, if you look back closely at how things unfolded in September and October 2012—and everyone seems to have forgotten—it was Romney, not Obama, who bungled Benghazi. It was clear at the time to a broad range of observers, not just liberals, that Romney really screwed the pooch on Benghazi, both when it first happened and then later in a debate.
Any memory of Romney’s initial reaction? He was in such a hurry to blame Ambassador Chris Stevens’s death on Obama that he rushed out a statement blaming the Obama administration for sympathizing “with those who waged the attacks” rather than the “American consulate worker” who died in Benghazi. You read that right—worker, singular. Romney was in such a hurry to get out a statement feeding right-wing paranoia about Obama’s anti-Americanism that it went out even before it was known that four Americans had died.
Romney was referring to a statement released by the American Embassy in Cairo, where the region’s rioting started that night, that criticized the now-famous video for fanning the flames. The statement wasn’t vetted in Washington, and so didn’t represent administration policy, but Romney jumped into the deep end and used it.
The next day, he was torn to pieces. In the old United States—yes, even during a presidential election—a tragedy like Benghazi would have halted campaigning for a day, and certainly, certainly everyone would have agreed that it would have been terribly unseemly for the challenger to politicize the event. But here came Romney: He didn’t even know how many bodies there were before he started trying to score political points off the deaths.
And most every news outlet took him to task. Read here for yourself a roundup of how his statement was playing in real time on September 13, 2012. Here’s the opening of a Bloomberg piece headlined “Romney Criticized for Handling of Libya Protests, Death”: “The attacks that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya became a flashpoint in the American presidential race, as Republican nominee Mitt Romney drew criticism from Democrats and Republicans for chastising President Barack Obama and his administration on their response.” Democrats and Republicans.
Romney policy director Lahnee Chen didn’t make things any better for his boss by saying the campaign went with the criticism because it fit the “narrative”: “We’ve had this consistent critique and narrative on Obama’s foreign policy, and we felt this was a situation that met our critique, that Obama really has been pretty weak in a number of ways on foreign policy.” A situation that met our critique. Before they really knew much of anything. Priceless.
At that point, Romney started backtracking a bit. But on the right the issue kept a-boiling, through Susan Rice’s appearance on the chat shows, until the second presidential debate, the foreign-policy debate. Romney was presented with a chance to re-handle Benghazi, and he screwed it up even worse. That was when Obama said, accurately, that he called the attack “an act of terror” the day after in the Rose Garden, and Romney countered, “I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.” The transcript showed that Obama was right and Romney was wrong.
So Romney had a second shot at winning the Benghazi argument in real time, but all he managed to do was make it worse. It was crystal clear at the time that of all the issues of the campaign, he mishandled Benghazi the worst. (I’m not counting the 47 percent business here because that was a different kind of thing. It wasn’t a public policy “issue” that arose during the race.)
So let’s review. A tragic attack occurs. Before it’s even known how many people died or what on the earth are the reasons for the attack, the Republican standard-bearer breaks with all standards of decency and precedent and turns it into a political attack on the president—a presumptive and false one, just based on the paranoid right-wing idea that Obama is weak and somehow wants to cripple America. Then as now, most Americans weren’t buying it, and so Benghazi’s effect on the election, if any, was merely to show voters in the middle that the right was rabid about trying to “prove” that Obama refused to defend America, and it turned them off.
And now here we are, two years and eight investigations later, with Republicans acting shocked, shocked that there might have been anything political in the way the administration dealt with the attack and still carrying on in the same rabid vein. I obviously don’t know to a certainty that the new hearing won’t turn up something genuinely damaging, but unless it does, most Americans will react as they did then: Oh, Republicans doing more crazy shit.