Why the GOP needs to be cautious in tying Hillary to Benghazi

Republicans made significant progress in bringing the Benghazi debate to the political forefront last week. And there is a growing sense that the issue could soon be laid at Hillary Clinton's doorstep.

But as the GOP confronts targeting Clinton, they also risk over-playing their hand.

Bringing Clinton into the conversation is all too tempting. She's a lightning rod for the conservative base and she's the biggest obstacle to the GOP's effort to reclaim the White House in 2016 -- not to mention the fact that she led the State Department the day of the attacks -- so of course Republican are going to focus on her

At the tail end of last week, the National Republican Congressional Committee used Clinton and Benghazi debate to spur fundraising, and the American Crossroads super PAC launched a web video focusing on Clinton's role in the matter.

And it worked: the NRCC says its Clinton/Benghazi fundraising page made Friday the most trafficked day in the history of its Web site, and the Crossroads video has been viewed more than 100,000 times since Friday.

But just because it worked in the near term doesn't mean it's the wisest course over the long term.

Republicans are asking legitimate questions about what happened before and after the attack in Benghazi, and those questions are starting to get asked not just by the conservative media but by everyone.

The GOP gained considerable traction last week when three State Department "whistleblowers" testified before a House committee and when ABC News reported on more significant changes to the administration's now-discredited talking points than the White House previously disclosed. Both of these things will give this issue legs for the foreseeable future and allow Republicans to continue to expand their investigation.

But the moment Republicans get a little too ambitious in tying Clinton to the issue is the moment that Democrats can credibly say that this is a political operation -- as President Obama argued in his press conference Monday.

"We dishonor (diplomats) when we turn things like this into a political circus,” he said.

The fact is that while Republicans may truly believe Clinton bears some responsibility for what happened on Sept. 11, 2012, and for the administration's poor public response to it, they still have plenty to prove to the American people in that regard. And while we haven't seen recent polling on Clinton, she was a tremendously popular political figure as of earlier this year. That makes their case more difficult to make.

Quite simply: Attacking her has its pitfalls. And getting too worked up too early risks de-legitimizing a legitimate investigation.

Some Republicans are indeed calling for caution.

"If you’re holding four aces, why would you over-play your hand?" former congressman Tom Davis (R-Va.), who once headed the NRCC, told Post Politics. "Let it work out methodically. There are people that haven’t been interviewed yet."

Over the weekend, House oversight committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) heeded the advice of people like Davis, saying Clinton is "not a target" of his probe. (Indeed, Issa's hearing last week didn't initially focus much on Clinton, though she came up repeatedly later on.)

Conservative commentator Bill Kristol, meanwhile, said it was "ridiculous" to use the issue for fundraising and attacking Clinton at this point.

"Let’s pull the partisanship back; it’s a genuine outrage what happened in Benghazi," Kristol said on "Fox News Sunday." "I wish the Republicans would just be quiet for a while and that the partisan Republican groups that are fundraising off this would be quiet for a while on both issues (including the IRS scandal) ... and let's find out what really happened.”

Kristol and Davis are right. The more that Republicans can look like they are simply trying to get to the bottom of what happened, the more public support there will be for continuing their efforts.

The moment the American people see this as an effort to take down Clinton and win in 2016 is the moment that support could dry up.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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