Hillary Clinton’s two portraits after Benghazi hearings

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton testified on Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the September 11th attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed four Americans. (The Washington Post)
January 24, 2013

The headlines about Hillary Clinton on the day she testified in Senate hearings about Benghazi were telling in their opposition.

In one, we read that the secretary of state has reached new heights of political popularity that far outmatch the people she faced in hearings. Two-thirds of respondents in a new Washington Post-NBC poll view her favorably, which is a record high.

Meanwhile, another story focused on how Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told Clinton during the hearing that, were he president, he would have relieved her from her job. In stepping down from her post as secretary of state, he said, she was not only taking responsibility for what happened in Libya, but she was taking the blame as well. (Never mind she had long planned to serve only one term.) “Ultimately with your leaving you accept the culpability for the worst tragedy since 9/11. And I really mean that,” Rand said. He chided her “failure of leadership” and called it “inexcusable” that she remained in her job.

These two different narratives are, of course, intertwined. The all-out effort by many Republicans to question the State Department’s response to the Benghazi attacks has already cost President Obama what may have been his first pick for Clinton’s replacement—as well as led, albeit indirectly, to a slew of headlines questioning the diversity of his new cabinet.

Now, comments like Paul’s read as far more than an effort to get to the bottom of what happened in Benghazi, or what the State Department did or did not do in response. To me, they read as an attack against the most popular Democrat who may yet run for president in 2016. Coming from a guy who has said he is interested in running for the same office, Paul’s questions sound like camera-ready fodder for attack ads should he plan to oppose her in the future.

It’s too early to know how the Benghazi hearings will scar Clinton’s otherwise well-regarded tenure as secretary of state. No leader wants their last impression on the public stage to be one of getting grilled by senators about the loss of American lives. And this, of course, is why it’s unlikely to be her last. Even if Clinton does not choose to run for president, it seems unlikely that rest and relaxation are really all she has in store.

What we do know is that Clinton is immensely popular and is likely to be a political hazard to any Republican should she decide to run. Meanwhile, the approval ratings of members of Congress have hit all-time lows. Maybe if more of them focused on making Senate hearings an exercise in discovering exactly what could have been done differently—or how to prevent such incidents from happening in the future—rather than political grandstanding or attention-grabbing theatrics, their own popularity would be a little bit higher.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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