Benghazi, and Hillary Clinton’s misunderstood record as secretary of state


Hillary Rodham Clinton attends a book launch in Berlin on July 6. The former Secretary of State is on a tour promoting her new book, "Hard Choices." The German titel of the book is "Entscheidungen". (AP Photo/Gero Breloer)

There's something of a bombshell headline this morning at Politico: "Dim views of Hillary Clinton’s time at State."

The story, which is based on a new poll conducted by GfK, has quite a different take than previous polling on Clinton's record as secretary of state, which has regularly shown that people view her as a success. In fact, a Washington Post poll just last month showed 59 percent of people approved of her tenure.

Here are a few sample headlines for similar polls:

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So why the disconnect? Are people suddenly rethinking one of Clinton's biggest qualifications for running for president? Is Benghazi having the impact Republicans always thought it would?

Not completely. But the poll does lend us some valuable perspective on what has been a widely misunderstood portion of Clinton's resume.

The big reason for the disparate results: While most polls ask whether people approve or disapprove of Clinton's time as secretary of state, the new poll asked people to rate it as "excellent," "good," "fair" or "poor."

We generally dislike this type of question -- mostly because those writing about such polls lump "fair" together with "poor" to suggest people in both camps disapprove of the person in question. We see "fair" as a much more neutral response. (The great Maggie Haberman, who wrote the story, did not make this conflation, but others undoubtedly will.)

One person might look at this poll and see that a majority of people (53 percent) rate Clinton as either "fair" or "poor," while another could make a credible argument that it shows more people think she did well (42 percent said "excellent" or "good") than poorly (32 percent). Both are okay arguments, as long as they are in the correct context.

But in this case, we actually like this question, because it exposes the casual nature of support for Clinton's tenure as secretary of state.

Secretary of state is a great resume-builder, and the vast majority of the United States' top diplomats have emerged from the job quite popular (proof here). It's a job that sets you up for success. But just because people say they approve of their secretary of state doesn't mean they are huge fans. Perhaps she did well enough to earn people's "approval" but not necessarily enough to get positive marks -- hence "fair."

But part of the new poll is also that the bloom is off the rose. Clinton's numbers in general have dropped pretty significantly, to the point where she's not really all that popular anymore. Her numbers as secretary of state have remained a little better, but it's not surprising to see scrutiny of Clinton -- including on Benghazi -- to prompt even those numbers to drop.

The biggest takeaway from this poll is that Clinton's time as secretary of state might not be the feather in the cap that many thought it was. But people shouldn't look at this poll and suddenly see it as a liability.

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