Benghazi BS: Republicans, Desperate For A Scandal, Make Mountain Out Of Molehill

So it seems that the latest hyped-up Republican balderdash regarding the White House response to the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi centers on the discovery that the talking points developed for U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice were edited.

Pardon me while I yawn.

Seriously, this is the big, damning revelation that’s going to make Benghazi a bigger scandal than Watergate? Please. This is a bunch of hyped-up horse crap that doesn’t mean diddly squat, except that it is being used as a political cudgel by a bunch of hypocrites who engage in the same, largely innocuous practices on a daily basis.

First, let me tell you a little bit about talking points. People who work in politics and public relations are very familiar with talking points, which, for those who do not know, is a list of answers to questions that a politician, or a public or corporate official, might be asked by media or investigators. Talking points are crafted to keep the spokesperson from saying anything that might conceivably be used to attack the person, or the office, or the company, that the spokesperson represents. They are used as a defense against the “gotcha” culture that today prevails in politics and journalism, in which any poorly considered word can be turned into an attack (justifiably or unjustifiably), even if that word is taken wildly out of context.

Every politician, and every politician’s staff, uses talking points for exactly this reason (just as the ridiculous people who attack President Obama for using a teleprompter also use teleprompters virtually every time they make a major speech). And, with every politician’s office or corporate entity that uses talking points, there is always a multilayered review process that almost inevitably leads to revisions, because of the hair-trigger sensitivity involved. There is a justifiable fear that any single word that isn’t perfect (and perfectly innocuous) may boomerang, and this leads to a hypersensitivity on the part of the people who write and edit the talking points.

So what have we learned here about the talking points the administration initially used after the Benghazi attack? We learned that they went through multiple iterations and that a State Department official spent a lot of time quibbling about a few words because she was worried about what some unnamed senior officials in her department might think.

As someone who has spent most of the last dozen years writing talking points until they’re coming out of my ears, and dealing with the hypersensitive worrywarts who parse every word, I understand exactly what happened here. And what occurred here was almost certainly a case of overzealous caution that, in all likelihood, amounts to nothing more.

But the Republicans in Congress know that most people have no idea what talking points are, why they are used, and what the process is in developing them and using them. And they are counting on this fact to help them make something sinister out of this. Certain media organizations who undoubtedly know better are not only allowing them to get away with it, but helping them spread it, and this, sadly, is nothing new. Scandals, trumped up or otherwise, are good for ratings. And anybody out there who seriously believes that the “liberal media” is in bed with the Democrats, consider how much we heard about Whitewater, or Monica Lewinsky, or dozens of other things even more ridiculous, during the Bill Clinton presidency. Media outlets want viewers and readers because this is how they make money, and scandals are good for business.

What’s really happening here is happening for multiple reasons, none of which emanate from a legitimate concern about the security of our embassies. While numerous outlets reflect different numbers, a well-documented article by the admittedly liberal-leaning Media Matters for America demonstrates, through usage of independent sources, no fewer than seven such attacks during the George W. Bush administration. Where were these investigation-demanding Republicans then?

What’s really going on can be summed up in four quick points:

1) The fact that Republican members of Congress, in order to impress their political base, must attack the president constantly. Any Republican who doesn’t appear sufficiently aggressive against the president (see Charlie Crist, Chris Christie, etc.) immediately gets torn apart by the conservative base, and in some cases, such as what happened to Crist (now a Democrat), ends up facing a primary challenge.

2) The fact that Republican politicians have never gained any traction in their constant attempts to stoke hatred against the president and thereby weaken his personal brand. It has driven Republicans to distraction, as noted in a proposed super-PAC attack against President Obama during the 2012 election, that “Americans still aren’t ready to hate this president.”

3) The desire to bog the Obama Administration down in defending itself against ridiculous attacks rather than continuing to create uncomfortable pressure on the Republicans on actual issues, such as background checks for gun purchases. If you don’t think the president’s efforts on this issue have been producing results, look only at how Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire) and other Senators, of both parties, have seen their approval ratings fall off a cliff since voting against the background-check bill.

4) The Republicans’ abject fear of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gaining the Democratic nomination in 2016. As Time magazine reported on April 12th—just before this ridiculous tempest in a teapot was ginning up—numerous Republican political movers-and-shakers were all but conceding that Secretary Clinton would be unbeatable in a 2016 presidential run. They need to tarnish her now and either convince her not to run, or at least dent her approval ratings.

This isn’t about national security or a “cover up.” This is about the Republicans’ ongoing efforts to find a silver bullet against a president who, just like Bill Clinton, they couldn’t beat fairly at the polls. It’s also an attempt to preemptively destroy Hillary Clinton, whom they know they can’t beat at the polls. Don’t buy the hype.


What Mark Sanford's Victory Means

My boss asked me this morning who was going to win the special U.S. House election between former Gov. Mark Sanford (R-South Carolina) and his Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, sister of comedian extraordinaire Stephen Colbert. I told him Sanford was going to win by about 52% to 48%. I was a little short on the margin, which ended up around 55%-45%, but correct on the result.

I was able to pick Sanford in part because the polling had swung wildly in his direction, but also due to the inescapable fact that the 1st District of South Carolina is heavily Republican. It voted for Mitt Romney by 18 percentage points last year, a significantly larger margin than Romney achieved in the state as a whole. And if your district is to the right of South Carolina as a whole, it’s not voting for any Democrat, regardless of circumstances.

I also picked Sanford because of the trend we are seeing across the country, which is that voters are voting much more based on ideology than on personal characteristics. We saw an example of this in the easy reelection of Sen. David Vitter (R-Louisiana) despite his prostitution scandal.

It is true that sometimes, people go against their own partisan grain if their party’s candidate says or does something particularly offensive, and we saw that in the landslide defeat last year of former U.S. Rep. Todd Akin (R-Missouri) in his Senate race against Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri). I’m not convinced that Akin would have won that race if he hadn’t made his idiotic comment about rape—I think McCaskill is a much better politician than she gets credit for, and I cannot believe that her landslide win was entirely due to Akin’s flub—but I think it’s clear that the race would have been much closer without Akin’s disastrous gaffe.

That said, it appears, more and more, that while some mistakes can still sink a candidate, a candidate’s marital infidelity is no longer one of those fatal miscues. Admittedly, this hasn’t really been tested when it comes to female candidates—and it would be interesting to see how such a scenario would play out—but can you name the last male candidate for high office who lost an election, which he otherwise would likely have won, strictly because he cheated on his wife? We might have to go back to Gary Hart, whose promising 1988 presidential run tanked after he was discovered to be having an affair.

For all the talk about “family values” and the “sanctity of marriage” emanating from the GOP, Republicans in South Carolina’s 1st District had no qualms today about sending an admitted adulterer to represent them in Congress, just as their Republican compatriots in Louisiana had no issue reelecting Vitter. And on the other side, the job approval of Democratic President Bill Clinton was never higher than it was when Republicans—led by confirmed adulterers Newt Gingrich and Henry Hyde—impeached him for the fallout surrounding his affair with an intern.

It looks like the big lesson from Mark Sanford’s victory tonight was that marital infidelity doesn’t matter in politics, as long as a candidate remains faithful to the ideology of his constituents.