On Thursday, Fred Thompson compared last year’s Benghazi attacks to Watergate. Really. So can Republicans pre-emptively impeach Hillary Clinton?

Dem Rep Elijah Cummings on Benghazi: “death is a part of life”. So are break-ins, but we’ve been dealing with Watergate for 40 years. #tcot

— Fred Thompson (@fredthompson) May 9, 2013

But if their obsession with Benghazi is partly an attempt to render her incapable of winning the general election in 2016, the affair won’t do it for them. Or even get close.

At first, in fact, Republicans didn’t even try. Following the Sept. 11, 2012 attacks, their initial target was Susan Rice, a lesser-known Obama appointee and possible Clinton successor at the State Department. She was far less popular in Washington, and she didn’t have much of a national reputation. Easier, in other words, to take down with a small club.

Clinton, on the other hand, continues to be one of the most-scrutinized people on earth, and, following her time as secretary of state, her reputation remains strong. Even after the attention the right has paid to Benghazi — including demanding she testify to Congress — her approval numbers remain in the 60s. If she runs for president, of course, they wouldn’t stay there. Any residual support among Republicans who have compared her favorably to President Obama will dry up. But that would have happened with or without Benghazi.

Hillary Rodham Clinton (Matt Rourke/AP)
Hillary Rodham Clinton (Matt Rourke/AP)

Benghazi, anyway, did not stop Obama from winning last year, even while the attacks were recent news. They were horrific, but not the stuff that turns elections. As Marc Ambinder argues, the facts don’t suggest any believable, coherent narrative of grand conspiracy or utter perfidy in the top ranks of the Obama administration. Digging into them would likely to confuse a lot of voters. In 2016 Clinton would suffer — or benefit — far more from the state of the economy, the way she campaigns and voters’ impressions of her personality than from one episode in 2012 that didn’t capture the public’s imagination.

Most important, though, is that Clinton rose in stature at the State Department not because of some long list of accomplishments. I’d be surprised if most Americans could name a single, big thing she did in those four years, and there’s actually much more than Benghazi that one could fairly criticize. Rather, her public image changed. Her decision to accept the job in the first place — from a bitter former rival — was admirable. More so was her dedication and professionalism after that. It’s easy now to forget those predictions from 2009 that she would undermine President Obama at every turn. Her comportment provided evidence that it wasn’t about her, but about the job. Benghazi detracts from none of that.

Yes, Clinton would have to cook up some good messaging on Benghazi. But Republicans won’t be able to turn her time at State — an asset — into a liability.

Stephen Stromberg is a Post editorial writer. He specializes in domestic policy, including energy, the environment, legal affairs and public health.