Right on cue as Republicans roll out the House select committee on Benghazi, much of the Beltway media chatter centers on what a looming problem the new investigation poses for Hillary Clinton and her possible presidential run in 2016. The commentary follows more than on year of similar proclamations that ongoing Benghazi pursuits would do damage to President Obama's second term, which in turn could doom Democrats in the next two election cycles.
That conventional wisdom, of course, closely mirrors GOP talking points about a "scandal" whose central questions were long ago answered. And whose blockbuster claims were long ago debunked. ("Stand down" orders were definitely not given.) By playing along, the press is just furthering Republican goals of portraying Benghazi as a pending Democratic doomsday.
But is there any evidence journalists can point to support the conservative assumption that additional hearings and endless churning for Benghazi headlines by Republicans pose a political problem for Obama and Clinton? Or that the issue will still loom large on Election Day 2016, which is approximately 900 days away? (Note that when Americans vote in 2016, the Benghazi attack will have taken place more than 1,500 days earlier.)
Reporters like to quote Republican operatives, such as Tim Miller, executive director of the GOP opposition-research group America Rising, who claim Benghazi could cripple Clinton's campaign. But he's paid to say that. Where's the independent proof to back up that claim? Journalists rarely offer much. Instead they seem to rely on the assumption that the mere existence of hearings about an email about a memo about Sunday morning TV appearances is damaging. (ABC News: "Scandal City.")
But Clinton's large and unprecedented polling advantage with regards to the 2016 Democratic primary season represent proof Benghazi that hasn't damaged her electoral chances within the party. And polls pitting her in hypothetical match-ups with possible Republican contenders continue to show her with an overwhelming advantage. While her overall approval ratings have dipped as expected from their high as she's pivoted from secretary of state to a potential presidential candidate, she remains an incredibly popular political figure.
If you're looking for an actual example of a potential White House candidate whose standing completely crumbled in the wake of a legitimate scandal, look no further than New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Following the revelations this winter of the New Jersey lane-closing controversy, Christie lost one-third of his national favorable rating, according to NBC News/Wall Street Journal polling. And he's gone from the leading candidate in the GOP primary to the middle of the pack.
Some journalists point to a Pew Research poll this year, which showed 15 percent of respondents selected "Benghazi" when asked to name the most negative thing about Hillary's Clinton's career. That's proof, scribes suggest, that the terror attack and the controversy surrounding it has done damage to her reputation. Yet the same Pew poll found an overwhelming 67 percent of people approved of Clinton's performance as secretary of state; the position she held when the Benghazi attack took place.
Nonetheless, the GOP-fed narrative remains strong. "As much as she would like to escape the attack's long shadow, it will continue to dog Hillary Clinton," National Journal recently claimed, insisting the Benghazi controversy represents perhaps "the biggest thing" Clinton will have to deal with if she runs for president.
On September 16, the day of the Navy Yard gun massacre in Washington, D.C, White House spokesman Jay Carney took questions from assembled journalists when CNN's Jim Acosta asked about the shooting rampage, where a gunman killed 12 people.
"Navy Yard, Newtown, Tucson, Aurora, Fort Hood," Acosta said, ticking off a list of recent mass shootings in the United States. "Is the President concerned that his administration will be marked by an inability to resolve this issue of mass shootings?"
Huh? Obama's to blame for not stopping mass shootings?
The fact is that following last December's gun massacre at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut, and after becoming the first president since Dwight Eisenhower to win election and reelection with 51 percent of the vote or more, Obama made gun violence a top legislative priority. "Obama and Biden gave more than 30 speeches, interviews and online chats, oftentimes with families of gun victims at their side," according to McClatchy newspapers.
First Lady Michelle Obama became actively involved in the gun legislation push. The president personally reached out to Republican members of Congress to press his case, as well as meeting with families from the Newtown shooting, while Obama's political organization, Organizing for Action, held rallies and vigils nationwide to build momentum for legislative action.
In the end, none of it mattered because the vast majority of Republicans refused to support the proposed background check bill, just as the vast majority of Republicans have refused to support virtually any White House initiative since 2009. As Congressional historians Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann recently noted, "Persuasion matters if the people you are trying to persuade have any inclination to go along, or any attachment to the concept of compromise." (Republicans do not.)
What made the gun bill's defeat so shocking was it came in the wake of the haunting school slaying. Plus, according to many polls, more than 90 percent of Americans support background checks for all gun buyers, the central facet of the failed legislation. Yet Republicans threatened a filibuster and refused to allow the bill to proceed.
As Carney patiently explained to Acosta, his question about the political inability to resolve the issue of mass shootings was probably better put to Republican senators, 91 percent of whom voted against the background check bill, and to the larger Republican Party which made universally clear in the wake of Sandy Hook that it would block any attempt by Obama and Democrats to tighten gun laws in America, no matter how many mass shootings unfold on our television screens.
Viewed in a larger context, the strange CNN question revealed more about the state of the Beltway media than it did about Obama's "inability to resolve" gun rampages. It was telling that a reporter sought to assign blame to the person trying to fix the problem of mass shootings, and not to the people standing in the way of that attempt.
A Beltway media truth: The failed gun vote, engineered by obstructionist Republicans, highlights Obama's political shortcomings. A second Beltway media truth: The blocked gun vote reveals little about the state of today's GOP.
Time's James Carney wrote: "As any Republican will tell you, the National Journal ranked [Sen. Barack] Obama the most liberal member of the Senate." But Carney did not note that the National Journal's rankings are based on subjective criteria.
NPR's Renée Montagne, MSNBC's Pat Buchanan, and CNN's Bill Bennett all referred to the National Journal's 2007 Vote Ratings, which ranked Sen. Barack Obama the most liberal senator that year, without noting the subjectivity of the ratings. The National Journal based its rankings not on all votes cast by senators in 2007, but on "99 key Senate votes, selected by NJ reporters and editors, to place every senator on a liberal-to-conservative scale."
USA Today uncritically reported that Sen. John McCain "noted" that Sen. Barack Obama "was once named the most liberal senator by National Journal magazine." But USA Today did not report that McCain himself "did not vote frequently enough" to receive a rating. Further, USA Today did not report that the National Journal ranking was based on 99 votes selected by the magazine's staff, a subjective methodology that Obama himself has criticized.
Articles by the AP and The New York Times uncritically quoted Sen. John McCain's labeling of Sen. Barack Obama as "the most liberal" senator without mentioning that the National Journal rankings to which McCain was referring did not offer a ranking for McCain himself because he "did not vote frequently enough" to receive one. They also did not mention that the ranking was based on subjectively selected votes, or that a separate study that considers all non-unanimous votes offers a notably different ranking for Obama.
The Los Angeles Times reported of Sen. Barack Obama: "National Journal magazine has ranked him as the most liberal member of the Senate." In relying on National Journal's rankings, the article ignored a more comprehensive vote study by two political science professors that placed Obama in a tie for the ranking of 10th most liberal senator in 2007.
In an article discussing whether Sen. Barack Obama "can transcend the starkly red-and-blue politics of the last 15 years, end the partisan and ideological wars and build a new governing majority," The New York Times noted that the National Journal rated Obama's "voting record ... the most liberal in the Senate." But the Times did not mention that the Journal's rating conflicts with that of a respected study that, in contrast to the Journal's, uses every non-unanimous vote cast within a given year.
A New York Times article about possible attacks against Sen. Barack Obama in the general election reported that Sen. John McCain's aides said "their first line of attack would be to portray [Obama] as a liberal, and they have already begun pointing to a rating in The National Journal, based on his votes, of Mr. Obama as the most liberal member of the Senate." But among the "liberal" positions Obama took to earn the distinction of "most liberal senator in 2007" were his votes to implement the bipartisan 9-11 Commission's homeland security recommendations, provide more children with health insurance, expand federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, and maintain a federal minimum wage.
In an "analysis" of Sen. Barack Obama's response to a question about being rated the "most liberal senator" of 2007 by National Journal, FactCheck.org deputy director Viveca Novak claimed that "[t]he nonpartisan public policy magazine's analysis of the votes and the designation of 'liberal' and 'conservative' positions was done according to a rather rigorous process the publication has been using since 1981." In fact, National Journal editor Charles Green has admitted that the publication changed the methodology it had used in its 2003 ratings after it determined that the methodology that resulted in a "most liberal" senator ranking for 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry had been flawed.
In an email to readers encouraging recipients to read the National Journal article on the magazine's 2007 vote ratings, the National Journal Group wrote: "In 2004, President Bush invoked Senator John Kerry's liberal Vote Ratings score repeatedly on the campaign trail and at their head-to-head debates. We anticipate similar attention for our Vote Ratings across the 2008 election cycle." Numerous media did follow suit and tout the Journal's 2003 rating of Kerry. And once again, the media are giving the 2007 ratings the "similar attention" the National Journal Group anticipated -- despite the Journal's acknowledgment that the methodology it used to rate Kerry was flawed.
In reporting on Sen. Hillary Clinton's $5 million loan to her presidential campaign, National Journal's Hotline On Call claimed that "Clinton had to borrow funds from her husband, former President Bill Clinton." In fact, Sen. Clinton has said that the loan was "my money," and, indeed, it would be illegal for her to use assets belonging solely to her husband to fund her presidential campaign. Hotline On Call also claimed that Sen. Barack Obama was asked about "what it meant that Clinton had to borrow funds from her husband," but there is no evidence that Obama was asked that question or that he remarked on her purportedly having "borrow[ed] funds from her husband."
Among the "liberal" votes Sen. Barack Obama took that purportedly earned him "the most liberal senator in 2007" label in the National Journal's "2007 Vote Ratings" were: to implement the 9-11 Commission's homeland security recommendations, provide more children with health insurance, permit federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, and maintain a federal minimum wage.
In an email to readers encouraging recipients to read the National Journal article on the magazine's Senate ratings, the National Journal Group wrote: "We expect this story will have immediate traction in the media and blogosphere and at watercoolers around the country. In 2004, President Bush invoked Senator John Kerry's liberal Vote Ratings score repeatedly on the campaign trail and at their head-to-head debates." However, the email did not note that the National Journal has acknowledged the methodology it used to produce its Kerry "most liberal" rating was flawed.
Media Matters for America has identified numerous media outlets or figures who reported that the National Journal has rated Sen. Barack Obama "the most liberal senator in 2007," but did not report that the same National Journal feature stated that Sen. John McCain "did not vote frequently enough in 2007 to draw a composite score. He missed more than half of the votes in both the economic and foreign-policy categories."