In the latest Fox News poll, 78 percent of register voters say the Obama administration’s handling of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, is very or somewhat important while 67 percent (including 55 percent of Democrats) approve of setting up a select committee. By a margin of 54 percent to 38 percent, Americans (including 65 percent of independents) don’t think the administration has been honest. Hillary Clinton gets slightly better marks, but only 40 percent think she has been honest as opposed to 50 percent who do not. By a 51 percent to 39 percent margin, respondents think the administration intentionally misled the country about the video to aid President Obama’s reelection. A full 72 percent think the administration is to blame for the security failure while 68 percent think it is to blame for not bringing the responsible people to justice.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies on the Benghazi attack before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (Linda Davidson / The Washington Post) Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies on the Benghazi attack before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

There is a cautionary note, however. By a 63 percent to 30 percent margin, Americans think the GOP is investigating the issue for political gain, not to get at the truth. (They still favor the committee, as noted above.)

This suggests that Democrats and the media (acknowledging the overlap between the two) aren’t getting very far with their “nothing to see here, move along” argument. Simply calling the investigation political doesn’t mean voters think it isn’t important or shouldn’t go forward. (Democrats, judging from their unified attack on the committee, likely thought otherwise.) Instead, the administration and Clinton start without the benefit of the doubt; in fact, voters assume they are not telling the truth now and didn’t tell the truth in September, 2012.

What should the two parties take away from all this? Democrats should take the committee seriously and show up to defend their honesty. Otherwise, by their absence they risk allowing Republicans to cement negative perceptions of the administration and Clinton, while perhaps making Democrats’ boycott seem political. Moreover, wouldn’t they want to cooperate to clear up the misconception (they claim) that they messed up and lied to get reelected? If they didn’t do these things, you’d expect them to be demanding an investigation to exonerate themselves.

Republicans should focus on what went wrong (Didn’t we know about the jihadis? Why were our people still there?) and the failure to capture the culprits. The public already suspects the administration messed up. And the gravity of policy malfeasance of this level should not be ignored. It matters if the administration or Clinton ignored the obvious and/or exercised poor judgment. It matters if the CIA dropped the ball on tracking jihadis and thereby leaving Americans in harm’s way. In that regard, General David Petraeus certainly could provide additional insight. If anyone understands the crux of the security failure, it is he.

It also is important to get to the bottom of the fake narrative for the sake of good governance and in order to hold accountable those who may have misled the public. White House aide Ben Rhodes needs to explain under oath what he meant by that memo on the attack’s causes and who else was involved in its creation. The public has a right to know if he and others who repeated the false narrative for two weeks were confused or deceitful.

The biggest takeaway here may be that if Republicans behave unprofessionally, they risk actually improving the administration’s standing on this issue. Grandstanding, badgering witnesses and meandering around topics already covered are likely only to turn off voters who think the subject is deserving of serious investigation. The degree to which the committee can shed light on the administration’s delinquency in keeping our people there with inadequate security assets and on its continued stonewalling, the more likely the public is to approve of the committee’s work.

There is a parallel the administration might want to keep in mind. There was virtual unanimity in the political world that if New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie lied in his press conference disclaiming any knowledge of the traffic jam scheme he would be toast, not only as a future presidential candidate but in his current job. Isn’t the same true of Obama, Clinton and other senior White House officials? If they lied then, or lied during the earlier committee hearings, or concealed documents or decide to mislead the select committee, won’t they too suffer the wrath of the public? After all, the George Washington Bridge scandal inconvenienced a lot of people for a few days; the Benghazi fiasco left four Americans dead. Needless to say, the stakes for the president’s legacy, his current advisors’ careers and Hillary Clinton’s future are extremely high, as they are for House Republicans.