Hillary Clinton to the rescue

Clinton offers Obama some badly needed cover on Benghazi -- and her husband follows up with an assist of his own

Published October 16, 2012 12:41PM (EDT)

The timing of Hillary Clinton’s declaration late Monday that “I take responsibility” for the security failures in Benghazi wasn’t coincidental.

It came about 24 hours before a critical presidential debate in which Mitt Romney figures to bring up the deadly September embassy attack, which has become a major theme in the Republican case against President Obama. Clinton’s words certainly seemed aimed at taking some of the heat off her boss, something she essentially acknowledged when she said that “I want to avoid some kind of political gotcha.”

The precise meaning of Clinton’s words is a bit muddy. She seems to be weighing in specifically on the issue of why a regional security officer’s request for heightened embassy security before the assault wasn’t acted on. When Paul Ryan raised this at last week’s vice-presidential debate, Joe Biden insisted that "we weren't told they wanted more security. We did not know they wanted more security there,” a claim that was greeted with considerable skepticism by Republicans and media members. But speaking with CNN from Lima, Peru, Clinton stated that:

“I'm in charge of the State Department's 60,000-plus people all over the world (at) 275 posts. The president and the vice president wouldn't be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals. They're the ones who weigh all of the threats and the risks and the needs and make a considered decision."

She did not seem to be addressing the mixed signals that the administration sent in the days after the attacks about whether they were spontaneous and inspired by an anti-Islam YouTube video or a premeditated terrorist attack. That public confusion has prompted Republicans to latch on to the issue and convene congressional hearings, with some loudly claiming that the White House is engaged in some kind of coverup.

The question is whether Clinton’s statement will provide Obama with the political cover it’s designed to give him. It probably deserves to. After all, it seems reasonable that the State Department should have been more directly engaged than the White House in making decisions about security logistics for its embassies; that’s one of the reasons the State Department exists, isn’t it?

And as Blake Hounshell points out in a terrific post on the entire situation, it’s not as if the White House ignored sustained public calls for more security in Benghazi before the attack. The issue only emerged  in the wake of Ambassador Chris Stevens’ killing. As Hounshell reminds us, “This crisis could have been a lot worse. For now, it seems the moment has passed and Benghazi was the worst of it. That's a huge relief -- imagine what could happen in a place like Yemen or Pakistan.”

While it reeks of election year politics, the Republican-led congressional investigation of Benghazi is certainly warranted, and along with the administration’s own review, it should ultimately help bring clarity to a situation that no one right now really seems to have a complete grasp of. At this point, we know that it’s a tragedy, but that doesn’t by itself make it a scandal.

Not that this will stop Republicans – including, presumably, Romney at tonight’s debate – from pressing on with their attacks. Almost as soon as Clinton spoke last night, GOP Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte chimed in with a statement attempting to return the attention to Obama. It was “laudable,” they said, that Clinton had stepped up, “especially when the White House is trying to avoid taking any responsibility whatsoever,” but:

If the President was truly not aware of this rising threat level in Benghazi, then we have lost confidence in his national security team, whose responsibility it is to keep the President informed. But if the President was aware of these earlier attacks in Benghazi prior to the events of September 11, 2012, then he bears full responsibility for any security failures that occurred. The security of Americans serving our nation everywhere in the world is ultimately the job of the Commander-in-Chief. The buck stops there.

Expect to hear some variation of that theme from Romney tonight and from Republicans in the weeks ahead. They think they have a political winner in the Benghazi issue, and until a complete picture of what transpired finally emerges, it can be hard for the White House to fight back without sounding defensive and evasive, as Biden seemed to last week. The good news for the Obama team, of course, is that the issue still seems unlikely to matter much on Election Day, given that most voters prioritize economic issues. Plus, the Obama administration’s overall national security record remains generally popular. People remember who was president when Osama bin Laden was killed.

Clinton’s words are notable for one other reason. It’s the latest in a growing list of examples of the election year help she and her husband have been providing to Obama – help that has strengthened even further the Clintons’ standing within the Democratic Party and made Hillary the obvious front-runner for the 2016 nomination if she decides to seek it. Indeed, just a few hours after Hillary’s statement last night came a new Obama campaign video starring Bill, who spends five minutes in it explaining and critiquing Mitt Romney’s tax plan.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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