What a belly laugh it was yesterday when Benghazi-hunter Darrell Issa insisted on Meet the Press that “Hillary Clinton’s not a target.” Apparently his Republican brethren haven’t received his memo.
On Face the Nation, Senator Kelly Ayotte (who aspires to be somewhere on the 2016 GOP ticket) was busy targeting Hillary: “Obviously she was the decision maker at the State Department.” Out in Iowa, Senator Rand Paul (who aspires to be somewhere on the 2016 ticket) told a group of partisans on Friday that Hillary’s behavior on Benghazi was “inexcusable” and should “preclude her from holding higher office.” And on TV yesterday, Senator John McCain (who put Sarah Palin on the 2008 ticket) offered this gem of Hillary innuendo: “She had to have been in the loop some way. But we don’t know for sure.”
And then it occurred to me: The spring of 2013 is the spring of 2005 all over again.
I doubt this has occurred to you; in kinetic contemporary politics, an eight-year span is akin to a millenium. But the parallels are nonetheless striking. Back in May ’05, Republicans were very worried about the ’08 election; most notably, they were very worried about Hillary, who had raised her favorability rating by becoming an effective and respected U.S. senator. So they endeavored to re-slime her, to ramp up her negatives as they had done during the ’90s.
As Mike Krempasky, a veteran conservative organizer, told me that spring, “The machine is starting to gear up.” The conservative closed-loop echo chamber got busy promoting a new anti-Hillary book (perversely entitled The Truth About Hillary) which alleged that she was a “dupicitious” “ruthless” manipulator who was “widely rumored” to be a lesbian, and whose daughter was allegedly conceived during an act of rape.
Granted, some prominent conservatives disputed the allegations. Craig Shirley, who had worked with anti-Hillary publishers during the ’90s, told me, “This stuff is disgusting. It makes your skin crawl. It could backfire and make Hillary a more sympathetic figure.” And Krempasky said that the book “makes our politics look like The Jerry Springer Show.” But the usual suspects – Drudge Report, NewsMax, Fox News, Limbaugh – went to work on Hillary anyway. As ex-GOP congressman John Boutillier, proprietor of an anti-Hillary website, told me at the time, “The new media is where it’s at. That’s where the action.” And 2008 was only three years away.
Today, it’s back to the future. It’s 2013, the next election is only three years away, and Republicans are not happy that Hillary has raised her favorability rating by serving as an effective and respected Secretary of State. Hence, the anti-Hillary reboot. Benghazi seemed like a gift.
They’ve already tried in vain to prove that she personally exposed the Benghazi compound to repeated hostile attacks, and that she personally refused to send in the U.S. military; ex-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who served two Republican presidents, said on TV yesterday that Hillary obsessives seem to have “a cartoonish impression of military capabilities.” So now they’ve shifted tactics. Now they’re claiming – without any evidence – that she orchestrated a cover-up about those September talking points.
It’s absolutely true that the Obama administration finessed and tweaked and revised and edited its draft statements, removing references to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups; an ABC News story, posted last Friday, detailed the changes. And it’s absolutely true that Obama’s press secretary misled reporters in November when he said that the White House and State Department had adjusted only one word (“changing the word ‘consulate’ to ‘diplomatic facilicity’ because ‘consulate’ was inaccurate”) – when, in reality, State was far more actively involved.
But, alas, Hillary-haters have quickly gone to Defcon 1, claiming that she personally engineered a conspiracy to conceal the truth – despite what Jonathan Karl, the ABC Newsie who reported the story, has publicly stated: “There’s no evidence that Hillary Clinton was aware of what was going on, or in any way tried to direct what was in these talking points.”
No, what apparently happened was far more depressingly mundane – a brouha between competing government agencies, a bureaucratic knife fight that pitted the CIA against the State Department. (Vicious turf wars have raged ever since the 1790s, when Cabinet members Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton did battle.) In the current episode, the CIA drafted talking points that seemed to blame State for not being sufficiently vigilant about terrorist groups; State felt that CIA was trying to cover its own ass, because, after all, Benghazi was basically a CIA outpost.
Has Obama made good on his promise to change Washington? No way; the recent talking-point turf fight was classic Washington.
But for Hillary-haters to claim that she organized a plot to lie to the American people…well, that’s roughly on a par with their winter hilarity about how she was supposedly faking illness to avoid testifying. (She had a blood clot.) Indeed, their biggest problem is that they’ve cried wolf about Hillary way too many times. (The ’05 “lesbian” allegation merely rebooted an old Dick Morris allegation.) They can raise money off her, and Rand Paul can wow the Iowa base by maligning her, but they’ll never win the American middle with back-to-the-future overreach.
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1