The release of previously unseen e-mails relating to the White House's actions during and after the Benghazi attacks in 2012 that left four Americans dead has reopened discussion of the hot-button issue, and allowed Republicans to open up a new front against Democrats not only for the 2014 midterms, but for the 2016 presidential race as well.
Last week, Speaker of the House John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) announced that he planned to bring the formation of a House select committee to investigate the Benghazi attacks to a vote in the House. If he succeeds, we're going to be hearing a lot about Benghazi in the next few months. Boehner has since announced that Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) will lead the committee.
Beyond a belief in a widespread Obama administration cover-up — a belief that definitely motivates many people invested in further investigations, why do Republicans want to return to this issue?
The first reason is the 2014 midterms. The second reason is the 2016 presidential election.
Like the other political skirmishes Republicans have fought against the Obama administration in the past year, opinions about the necessity of a Benghazi investigation divide neatly along partisan lines.
For example, while 72 percent of Democrats approve of the Affordable Care Act, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 89 percent of Republicans disapprove of it. Republicans have a built-in advantage in midterms — the demographics that make up their base are the most likely to turn out in non-presidential election years. The logic follows that if Republicans get their supporters, already primed to vote, even more pumped about the midterms, their success is set. In January 2014, a Pew Research poll showed that Republicans had a 10-percentage point advantage over Democrats when it comes to excitement about the midterms.
And, nothing — with the possible exception of Obamacare — riles up the Republican base like Benghazi. In May 2013, the Pew Research Center found that 70 percent of Republicans thought the Obama administration had been dishonest in their response to the Benghazi attacks. Sixty-two percent of Democrats thought the Obama administration had been honest.
The most active partisans on either end of the ideological spectrum are most likely to be drawn toward media that confirms their preexisting opinions on Benghazi (and everything else). That means that the most active Republicans — the ones most likely to vote in 2014 — are also watching the news outlets talking about these poll results. A story published in Politico Magazine this week showed that Fox News has mentioned Benghazi on 1,101 programs in the past year. In turn, people tweet about the attacks about every 12 seconds, according to reporting by National Journal.
Discussions about repealing Obamacare and investigating the Internal Revenue Service and the aftermath of the Benghazi attacks might be ignored by most of the population, but Republicans are paying attention, and want to see action. Republicans politicians and strategists hope they will be awarded for following through.
The electoral implications of the Benghazi investigations go beyond 2014, however. Republicans have no clear 2016 front-runner, and the Republican primary is likely to be crowded and contentious. Democrats, on the other hand, have seemingly coalesced around one candidate — Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was secretary of state during the Benghazi attacks in September 2012.
Pew Research published a survey showing opinions on Clinton's career and future ambitions this week. When asked what respondents had the most negative views on when it came to her career, Benghazi topped the list, with 15 percent saying that incident was the biggest blemish on her long tenure in public life. Republicans have a long time to up those negative feelings before the 2016 Democratic primary or, more importantly, the 2016 general election.
Gowdy, who will soon become the face of the Benghazi investigation, has previously expressed frustration with reporting on the attacks — and the fact that Hillary Clinton wasn't a protagonist of the incident. He told Fox News' Dana Perino last December, "I have read this 'New York Times' article, Dana, six times. I want you to read it six times and tell me if you can tell who the secretary of state was when Benghazi happened. Because her name wasn't mentioned a single solitary time in this exhaustive "New York Times" piece. Not once."
Gowdy also knows how to put on a good show, another reason he was likely chosen to lead the committee. If the Benghazi investigation makes good TV, more people are going to watch it — which increases the likelihood that the public will catch on, and either get angry at the Obama administration or the Republicans leading the committee. (Remember how impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton backfired on Congressional Republicans.) House Democrats were debating whether to boycott the committee — although now Rep. Nancy Pelosi is saying that Democrats should also be represented on the committee — likely wondering (or hoping) that the additional investigation might also rev up the Democratic base, which badly needs an injection of enthusiasm.