By Jules Witcover
10:52 AM EDT, May 13, 2013
If former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hoped she could segue quietly into private life as she pondered a presidential bid in 2016, that fantasy has been abruptly harpooned in the resurrection of the political squabble over the terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's hearing into the failure of the Clinton-led State Department to respond in a timely fashion has made clear that the issue will haunt her and any political aspirations she may have between now and the next presidential election.
The testimony of then Deputy Chief of Mission Gregory Hicks that he was rebuffed in seeking answers about the lack of department action has added fuel to allegations that a political cover-up of a serious national security lapse was involved. The same charges were aired during the 2012 presidential campaign amid denials by both Ms. Clinton and President Barack Obama.
But with Mr. Obama safely ensconced in another four years in the Oval Office, Ms. Clinton can expect a long rehashing of the episode. It's similar to the marathon re-examination of the Clintons' involvement in the Whitewater land acquisition that plagued them in her husband's presidency.
In the Benghazi case, however, Hillary Clinton in her own earlier testimony as secretary of state somewhat carelessly observed: "With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest? Or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they'd go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again."
The difference, Mr. Hicks has now said, was that Libyan President Mohamed Yusuf al-Magariaf had pointedly said the attack was an act of terrorism and not a mere street protest. To say otherwise, Mr. Hicks said, was an insult and embarrassment to the Libyan leader that damaged "his ability to lead his own country."
Ms. Clinton's "what difference does it make?" comment is now being reiterated on the Internet in a way that casts her at the time as ill-informed and callous. Although the next presidential election is more than three years away, that observation is certain to be recycled endlessly by her political critics, as she looms increasingly as the prospective next Democratic nominee.
The renewed assault on Ms. Clinton comes at a time of increased speculation about the intentions of a third presidential try in 2016 by Vice President Joe Biden. In long recent articles in the Washington Post and Rolling Stone, he is characterized as continuing to hold the confidence of President Obama and not to be ruled out despite his age of 70.
Right now, however, the attitude within the Democratic Party appears to be that Hillary Clinton, though a polarizing figure in the country, will have overwhelming support in her party and particularly among women should she run. Her brief sabbatical out of the public eye, after talk of hoping to getting away from it all to recharge her batteries, has waned as she steps up appearances and speaking engagements.
The flare-up of the Benghazi flap puts her back in the spotlight, no doubt sooner than she would have preferred. But it isn't likely to alter the general impression within the party that the 2016 presidential nomination will be hers for the taking, and could well persuade Mr. Biden not even to offer a challenge.
Nonetheless, although there have been occasional mentions of other possible Democratic contenders for 2016, including Govs. Martin O'Malley of Maryland and Andrew Cuomo of New York, there has been no evidence yet of either building a serious political operation for a national campaign.
What little political activity and energy that does exist in Democratic circles is being focused on recruitment and fund-raising for the 2014 midterm congressional elections. There, the Obama operation hopes to hold onto the party's control of the Senate and, only possibly, to achieve a slim majority in the House, where Republican obstructionism remains Mr. Obama's worst nightmare.
Until that challenge is resolved one way or the other, the Hillary-watching will go on and the Hillary-sniping as well, with Joe Biden among the watchers.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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