The #Benghazi Effect: Clinton’s State Record Becomes A Top GOP Target

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton listens as she testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the deadly September attack on the ... Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton listens as she testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the deadly September attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) MORE LESS
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A favorite and particularly trolling question that conservatives love to pose to Hillary Clinton supporters is: Name one of her accomplishments as Secretary of State.

But while that question is knowingly baiting, it touches on a very real issue as Hillary 2016 discussions intensify. The 1990’s might be old news, but Clinton’s tenure at the State Department is in the very recent past. Republicans believe it can be a powerful tool in their mounting campaign to undercut a Hillary 2016 bid before it actually starts. That could be a tall order: It was her time at State that sent Clinton’s approval ratings soaring. But the other side sees an opening.

“Clearly, the State Department record is both more timely and has not been scrutinized as closely,” Tim Miller, executive director of America Rising PAC, which is dedicated to combatting Hillary 2016, told TPM, “So in that sense, I think that gives us more opportunities to highlight her failures and it will drive more of the discussion.”

Hillary’s time at State has become the subject of intense scrutiny in recent weeks, both from conservatives and the media. The House’s creation of a select committee to investigate the Benghazi attacks in 2012, the threat of a subpoena for Hillary and the committee chair’s theorizing that it could last into 2016 were a non-too-subtle warning that Republicans are ready to make the issue as much of a nuisance for her prospective candidacy as they can.

Then in the last two weeks, The Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin dropped two unflattering stories about the Clinton State Department. First, he reported that the department had refused to label Boko Haram, the Nigerian militant group that kidnapped more than 200 young girls in April, as a terrorist group. A week later, Rogin reported that some of top Clinton deputies at State had attempted to stop sanctions on Iran for which she had been taking credit in May 2014.

Conservatives leapt.

“While Hillary continues to line her pockets with paid speeches, she has a pattern of ignoring/avoiding any tough questions,” Miller said in one email to reporters that played off Rogin’s Boko Haram story. Another blast followed the Iran sanctions story. The Republican National Committee teased in an email that Hillary was “playing foreign policy catch up.” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said at an RNC event this month that Benghazi “precluded” Hillary from being president.

Much like any dirt from the Clinton administration, Hillary’s State record isn’t going to be an electoral elixir for conservatives. In the 2012 presidential election, national security, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and foreign/focus overseas were named the most important problem facing the nation by a combined 9 percent of U.S. adults.

But these storylines could help complicate the public view of Clinton’s time as secretary of state, regarded as pristine by the conventional wisdom. She had a favorability rating of 64 percent shortly after she left the department, according to Gallup. But what the GOP might find promising is that it dipped to 58 percent a few months later as House Republican investigations into Benghazi intensified.

The Clintons and the unofficial campaign infrastructure that’s laying the groundwork for a 2016 run are starting to counter those conservative attacks. Correct The Record, the pro-Hillary rapid response group, released a list of 11 State Department accomplishments, which included the Iran sanctions along with the Osama Bin Laden raid and the end of the war in Afghanistan.

And the Clintons themselves, as they started to do more frequently and vigorously, disputed some of the GOP’s lines of the attack. President Bill Clinton said last Wednesday that “Hillary did what she should have done” on Benghazi.

Then Friday during a keynote address for the New America Foundation, Hillary folded her State Department experience into a speech that focused on economic inequality in the United States.

“Representing our country around the world during this very consequential time in history has given me an even stronger understanding of these issues,” Hillary said. “As secretary of state, I saw the way that extreme inequality has corrupted other societies, hobbled growth.”

“I urged elites to pay their fair share,” she said, “and governments to invest in their people.”

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