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Williams: Benghazi a 2016 proxy battle

Greg Nash

It is hard to count all the investigations into the Benghazi, Libya, attack — the exhaustive hearings and extensive testimony, the State Department review, the Senate report, the House report, the piles of newspaper and television stories. All failed to reveal any cover-up, any orders for the military not to help, or any lies from administration officials.

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Yet Mitt Romney, the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee, told a conservative radio host last week that Americans still do not have the “full story” behind the deaths of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

Also last week, a Republican invited the father of one of the Americans killed in the terror attack to be his guest at the State of the Union address. And, by the end of last week, a House resolution to form a select committee to investigate the episode had more than 181 Republican co-sponsors.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Republican National Committee is openly saying the party’s negative research team is focused on Hillary Clinton. He specifically mentioned Benghazi.

“We have to be very aggressive,” in looking at Clinton, said Reince Priebus in a December interview with talk radio host Hugh Hewitt.

At this point, Americans can conclude on the basis of available evidence that the Republican fixation on Benghazi has less to do with the facts of the tragedy than with their assessment that it is their best and only remaining hope to derail Clinton’s chances of winning the White House.

The GOP may be right to keep the fire hot.

A new Fox News poll finds 60 percent of registered voters believe Clinton is to blame for what happened in Benghazi. There was no surprise that 80 percent of Republicans blame Clinton. But it is news that 41 percent of Democrats agree with that opinion. That’s a danger to Clinton.

A December poll by YouGov and The Economist found Clinton, who was the nation’s most popular political figure for much of her time at the State Department, with favorable ratings higher than 50 percent, had seen her numbers fall to 46 percent. Those holding a favorable view were outnumbered by an eye-catching 48 percent who had a negative opinion of her. The most recent Washington Post poll has her back to 58 percent favorability with 38 percent negatives.

But the YouGov pollsters directly attributed Clinton’s approval drop in their poll to “negative press surrounding the tragic September 11, 2012 attack on the consulate in Benghazi.”

In December 2012, Nate Silver, the statistician and predictions expert then working for The New York Times, wrote that if Clinton “runs for president in 2016, one thing is almost certain: she won’t be as popular as she is right now.” At that time 65 percent of Americans, in a politically divided nation, viewed her favorably. “Those are remarkably high numbers for a politician in an era when many public officials are distrusted or disliked,” Silver wrote.

He predicted that the excitement around Clinton as the nation’s first likely female president as well as her resumé and fundraising skills translated into real “advantages.”

Silver later concluded the potential harm to Clinton from Benghazi would endanger her “perceived ‘inevitability.’ ”

That explains the GOP’s persistent efforts to keep Benghazi from fading away in the minds of American voters. Republicans cannot afford to run against a titanic political figure who is widely regarded as the inevitable next president.

The GOP is frantic to keep Clinton within reach as just one more generic Democrat.

The Benghazi story is their best hope, though a very thin one. So they have to keep pumping a dry well in hope something might bubble to the top.

Now the nascent Clinton campaign is beginning to respond to the GOP’s preemptive attacks.

Last week, Clinton said publicly the deaths in Benghazi are her “biggest regret” from her tenure at the State Department. She now calls the situation a “terrible tragedy.”

The tone of her remarks is far different than when she testified before Congress. When asked if the attack was a response to an anti-Muslim video or the work of terrorists, she dismissively told Congress: “What difference does it make?”

Now she conveys a sense of sorrow.

Last October, David Brock, a well-known liberal activist and Clinton ally, released an e-book titled The Benghazi Hoax. It is a hard- edged attack on the GOP for exploiting the story to score political points. Now it is also a guidebook for the Clinton campaign.

Clinton knows that many of her husband’s scandals — Travelgate, Whitewater, and the Lewinsky sex scandal — grew to political liabilities because they failed to take them seriously and control them early.

Her remarks last week show her political instincts are beginning to kick in and they are telling her she better get ahead of this scandal mongering now. Welcome to the 2016 campaign.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.