By Walter Russell Mead
With the New York Times now running a front page story on what might be deliberately false statements made by the White House about the Benghazi emails, the scandal has entered a new stage. Benghazi isn’t about a few right wing press activists tooting their horns anymore; much against its inclinations, the MSM increasingly understands that substantive questions exist.
That doesn’t mean that politics have disappeared from the story line. Just the reverse: the political struggle over the Benghazi narrative is becoming more intense. On the one hand, Democrats generally will be trying to minimize the story while Republicans will push it. Within the Democratic ranks, the Clintonistas will be the most determined enemies of the story.
Nobody is more resilient than the Clintons when it comes to surviving bad press, but Benghazi has the potential to become a major liability for the Clinton brand. Unless Mrs. Clinton’s team can build a theory of the case that clears her and her associated of primary responsibility for both the mess and, potentially, the cover-up, Team Clinton has some tough weeks and maybe months ahead.
For the White House, there are two options: to fight the whole story, or to do everything possible to hand it off to former Secretary Clinton.
Given that the story can no longer be swept under the rug, steering the controversy to the State Department is what the White House wants. A big press brouhaha over the degree of Mrs. Clinton’s responsibility for the mess is the best possible outcome for Team Obama; the uneasy relationship between the two wings of the Democratic Party is coming under new strain. The White House wants and needs this to be a whodunit about editing talking points, not a story about a White House effort to avoid a public discussion about the crisis in its Middle East policy (the Libya intervention was a bungled mess, Al Qaeda is on the rebound, etc) in the closing days of the campaign.
The ugliest dimension of the story still trying to claw its way out of the Republican media ghetto is the narrative about the unseemly rush to pin the blame for the terror attack on a video, and the subsequent railroading of one of the world’s lousiest film makers into jail for essentially political reasons.
This was both ugly and cowardly: ugly because the administration absolutely knew that the attempt to blame the film for Benghazi was at best baloney and at worst a deliberate lie. Cowardly because there is a difference between cringing and sensitivity, and the panicky response to the film was definitely on the wrong side of the line. A reflexive moral crouch and a knee jerk apology reflex is not a sign of a sensitive and statesmanlike approach to cultural misunderstandings; it telegraphs weakness to our enemies and says that if you push us we fold.
It’s a good thing all this was done by a Democratic administration; if the GOP had blundered this badly the media universe would be Bengazigate wall to wall. The pack would smell Pulitzers and the hunt would be on.
We could get there yet; the Benghazi story has broken through the first firewall. One reason second terms tend to be more disappointing than the first in modern America is that second terms are often defined by scandals (Watergate, Iran-Contra, l’affair Lewinsky). Between the IRS Tea Party mess and Benghazi, the Obama second term is already playing fight-the-scandal; there could well be much more to come.