I don’t know if it was rehearsed, but Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made the political play of the day Wednesday during the Senate Foreign Relation Committee’s hearings on the Benghazi attack. It came after Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin asserted that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice purposefully misled the nation about whether the attack erupted spontaneously during a protest against an anti-Muslim film.
"With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans," Clinton said. "Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they'd go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make? It our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, senator.”
Actually, it does matter whether the attackers in Benghazi were “guys out for a walk” or well-organized jihadists (though the attack wouldn't have been less of an act of terror if it had been spontaneous). But Clinton’s exasperated response highlighted the fact that Republicans have seemed more interested in pillorying Rice for her “misrepresentation” than in investigating security lapses that allowed the Benghazi attack to occur.
There was always a lot less to this “misrepresentation” than Republicans claimed. In her now-infamous talk show comments five days after the attack, Rice made it clear that her characterization of what happened in Benghazi (which was drawn from talking points prepared by the intelligence community) was a preliminary one. And, far from denying that the attack was committed by organized terrorists, she said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that “it’s clear that there were extremist elements that joined in and escalated the violence. Whether they were Al Qaeda affiliates, whether they were Libyan-based extremists or Al Qaeda itself, I think is one of the things we'll have to determine."
Republicans tuned out that qualification because they were outraged by Rice’s comment on the same program that the United States had “decimated Al Qaeda.” That comment, by the way, came in response to a general question about the Romney campaign’s charge that the Obama administration was projecting weakness abroad.
Thus was born the conspiracy theory that Johnson recycled in questioning Clinton: the idea that the administration lied about whether the Benghazi attack was the work of terrorists to shore up the president’s claim that he had decimated Al Qaeda. (Republicans seem to believe that “decimate” means “eliminate.”)
This was the claim Mitt Romney clumsily put forward in the second presidential debate when he disputed the claim that on the day after the attack, as Obama said, “I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people in the world that … this was an act of terror.” Republicans were apoplectic when moderator Candy Crowley backed up Obama. They complained for days that she had misinterpreted a transcript in which Obama condemned the Benghazi attack and pledged: “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.”
Republicans hoped that Benghazi would be campaign gold for Romney. Due in part to Romney’s ineptitude, that “issue” never gained traction. So Republicans took out their disappointment on Susan Rice -- and, Wednesday, on Hillary Clinton. But she gave as good as she got.