Why Republicans Aren’t Attacking Hillary Clinton over Benghazi

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Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

President Barack Obama heads back into the Oval Office after making a statement about the death of U.S. ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, DC., on Sept. 12, 2012.

On Sunday’s talk shows, Republicans remained indignant about Joe Biden‘s statement in last week’s debate that “we did not know” about requests for more security to protect the U.S. consulate in Benghazi shortly before the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The White House has clarified that Biden was not talking about the entire Obama Administration, but the White House itself, which seems an entirely reasonable position. But senior Romney adviser Ed Gillespie was not buying that line when pressed by Fox’s tenacious Chris Wallace:

WALLACE: What about — what about the argument that you just heard from David Axelrod, when he said “we”, he meant the president and the vice president. And, even the White House, and, quite frankly, there is no reason that they would have heard that people were asking for more security in Libya. That is not something that would rise to the presidential level.
GILLESPIE: Well, first of all, you know, I guess we’ll accept that explanation. “We” generally means your administration, when you are talking as the president or vice president of the United States, including your State Department.

And clearly what we saw here this morning and what we have been seeing is an effort by President Obama and Vice President Biden to say, no, it was really Secretary Clinton. It was the State Department that you ought to be looking at and talking to and criticizing here or questioning here as opposed to us in the White House.

GILLESPIE: I’m not sure that that’s sustainable, frankly. I think that the buck does stop at the — in the Oval Office.

This debate is strange on a couple of levels. One is the simple logic of it. Why is it not “sustainable” for the White House to say it was unaware of a bureaucratic fight over security at a second-tier diplomatic site? It seems overwhelmingly plausible, and it’s hard to imagine most voters would disagree.

Even stranger, however, is the position Republicans have adopted of defending Hillary Clinton. The Secretary of State has been an archvillain of Republican campaigns for decades now. And when it comes to the debate over security in Benghazi, it would seem that the buck should stop with her. But suddenly it doesn’t suit the GOP to attack Clinton. Her approval ratings are sky-high. Romney already has a problem with female voters. And Hillary’s not on the ballot this November. The GOP wants to concentrate its political attacks on Obama, even at the cost of sounding nonsensical.

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The Benghazi security debate is really a proxy for something larger anyway. Republicans don’t argue that Obama was somehow indifferent or incompetent when it came to protecting Chris Stevens. They say that the Libya attack illustrated the “unraveling” of Obama’s larger foreign policy. As Joe explains well, that thesis doesn’t make much sense either.

But all that may be beside the point. At his infamous “47%” fundraiser, Romney assured a concerned donor that if a foreign policy crisis emerged late in the campaign, “I will work to find a way to take advantage of the opportunity.” And so he has.

Update: The latest on who’s responsible for security in Benghazi.