Understanding the GOP’s Benghazi Obsession

Four reasons why Republicans are still talking about the “massive cover-up”

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Alex Wong / Getty Images

From left: Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain at a press conference on the terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, in Washington D.C., on Feb. 14, 2013.

For the past five months, the Republican message on foreign policy has been defined by a single word: Benghazi. Ever since the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. compound in that Libyan city, Republicans have obsessed over the episode. Mitt Romney made Benghazi a favorite talking point in the 2012 campaign home stretch. More recently, Republicans have invoked Benghazi to shoot down one would-be Cabinet nominee, Susan Rice, and delay two others, Chuck Hagel and John Brennan. They have dragged a parade of Administration officials, including Hillary Clinton, to testify before Congress. And they are still not satisfied.

“We have had a massive cover-up,” Republican Senator John McCain said on Meet the Press last weekend. “There are so many answers we don’t know.”

We do know quite a lot: the State Department has released a thorough independent report that resulted in the firing of four employees. Pentagon officials like Leon Panetta have explained why they couldn’t quickly send reinforcements to the scene. And the genealogy of those infamous talking points — upon which Rice relied when she appeared on several Sunday talk shows days after the attack — has been described in considerable detail.

But it’s the President that McCain and his colleagues are really after now. What exactly was Barack Obama doing while the compound was under attack? Did the White House insist on scrubbing the words terrorism and al-Qaeda from the intelligence community’s talking points for political reasons, lest Obama’s campaign narrative about the demise of the al-Qaeda terrorism threat be undermined?

Many Democrats say Republicans are exploiting a tragedy for tawdry partisan gain. But the GOP’s political profit isn’t obvious. Polls show that most Americans don’t think the Obama Administration has misled the public. And with Clinton testifying for hours on live television about the attacks, they largely fumbled the opportunity. The Republican lobbyist-strategist Ed Rogers told NPR he doubts the wisdom of pressing the issue so intensely. Benghazi is starting to resemble the “Fast and Furious” scandal, which consumed the right’s attention for months even as voters and the media yawned.

So why does the GOP hammer away? There are a few explanations. One is the real anger many conservatives feel over the idea that Obama was not entirely forthcoming about the nature of the attacks: Obama did reference Benghazi in a Sept. 12 Rose Garden statement that broadly discussed terrorism but did not draw a more explicit connection until weeks after. (Read a thorough timeline of the Administration’s Benghazi statements here.) “This is a genuine effort to demand accountability from a government that has resisted it,” says Danielle Pletka, a national-security analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “That’s not a political payoff, that’s not scoring points.”

There’s also the lottery-ticket theory. Harping at Benghazi may not be a short-term winner in the polls. But sustained pressure could yield some smoking gun — was the President meeting with campaign advisers while the compound was under fire? Is there a political-seeming e-mail from a White House official challenging the intelligence community’s talking points? — that might grab the public’s attention.

And don’t discount the resentment Republicans feel toward the media, which they believe has sided with the Obama team. Witness the argument between McCain and Meet the Press host David Gregory. “Do you care?” McCain snapped at Gregory. “I’m asking you, Do you care … whether four Americans died. And shouldn’t people be held accountable?” Or the way Republicans are still sour over Candy Crowley’s intervention in defense of Obama during a discussion of Benghazi in the final Obama-Romney debate. (Here’s my postdebate take on whether Crowley — no relation! — was right to speak up.) “There is a sense among reporters that there’s no deeper scandal at the root, and therefore that it’s been fully aired and it’s time to move on,” says Peter Feaver, a former George W. Bush national-security official now at Duke University.

Finally, congressional politics in particular is driven by more than national polls. Most Americans may not see Benghazi as a Watergate for our times. But hardcore Republicans, whipped up by conservative media, certainly do, and they are egging on their elected officials. Some of whom, notably including McCain’s fellow Benghazi-obsessive Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, are sweating the prospect of a primary challenge. There’s nothing like some feisty Obama-bashing to buffer the right flank.

Feaver, for one, doesn’t imagine an explosive ending to this story. “At the end of the day, it’s likely that when the truth is fully aired it will be embarrassing to the Administration, requiring some climb down. But not an impeachable offense with high crimes and misdemeanors.” More important, he says, are larger strategic questions about whether the Benghazi attack was a warning that the Arab Spring has unleashed dangerous new forces in the Arab world. But it will be hard to have that conversation so long as Republicans are still talking about a “massive cover-up.”