Putting aside for a moment the political wisdom of Republicans challenging a women of color just weeks after their demographic drubbing in the presidential election, there is something very ironic about Senators John McCain's (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham's (R-S.C.) vow to block United Nation Ambassador Susan Rice's potential nomination to become secretary of state. For all of the vitriol aimed at Rice for being "unfit" to serve to as secretary of state, there is remarkably little attention being paid to the role of the current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The Republican senators have accused Ambassador Rice of misleading Americans on the nature of the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, where Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed on September 11. Rice made several television appearances on September 16 during which she attributed the violence to an anti-Muslim movie that went viral online and inflamed protests in the Middle East. The administration later acknowledged that it was an organized terrorist attack. McCain has maintained that Rice is "not qualified" to become secretary of state and he called her claim that the deadly attack was a spontaneous demonstration "not very bright." Graham has said that he does not "trust" Ambassador Rice and that she "would have an incredibly difficult time" winning Senate confirmation as secretary of state.
Conspicuous by its absence in the senators' jeremiad is any reference to Secretary Clinton. Indeed, Clinton, who has announced her intention to retire when a replacement is confirmed, has emerged largely unscathed from the controversy over Benghazi. To her credit, Clinton has taken full responsibility for the deadly attack. In October, she told CNN in an interview that "[she's] in charge of the State Department's 60,000-plus people all over the world, 275 posts." However, McCain and Graham seemed utterly disinterested in taking Clinton to task, blithely calling her statement a "a laudable gesture."
For reasons that remain unclear, McCain and Graham have set their sights on Rice, who, as UN Ambassador, has no role in the state department or consulate security and was merely appearing as a spokesperson on behalf of the Obama administration. Moreover, Rice relied on unclassified talking points that were prepared by the intelligence community for members of Congress. The embattled U.N. Ambassador, along with acting CIA Director Michael Morell, met with McCain, Graham and Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) this past week in an effort to address their concerns. In the meeting, she admitted that "the talking points the intelligence community provided and the initial assessment on which they were based were incorrect" and that there was no protest or demonstration in Benghazi. The mea culpa, however, was not well received. The senators claimed that they were "significantly troubled" and "more disturbed" by many of the answers they received from Rice.
Meanwhile Hillary Clinton, under whose watch all of this has taken place, barely gets any mention during this lingering controversy. She has commissioned an investigation of the Benghazi attack, but has made no public comments on the matter since October 16.
The Republicans' reluctance to quarrel with Clinton is a reflection of just how much political fortunes have changed for the former First Lady. As the peripatetic secretary of state, Clinton has become one of the most respected and revered figures in the world. She is also the prohibitive favorite to be the Democrat nominee for president in 2016, though she has steadfastly denied any interest in running. However, Clinton has not always afforded such teflon status. During her years in the White House, she drew the ire of conservatives because of her active role in health care and other policy initiatives. Many scoffed at the notion of a "co-presidency" with her husband. Clinton was also the subject of several investigations, include the Whitewater land deal, and was the first First Lady to be subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury. Her favorable rating descended into the 40s at various points in 1990's.
Today, after eight years in the United States Senate and an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2008, Clinton enjoys a favorability rating of near 70 percent. Granted, this popularity is due in part to the nature of the secretary of state position, which is generally seen as above the fray of partisan politics. Former secretaries of state Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice and Madeleine Albright all maintained very high favorability ratings while in office. But Clinton's transformation from polarizing First Lady to beloved diplomat is nonetheless remarkable. Consequently, there is no political upside for Republicans to hurl invective at the retiring and redoubtable Clinton.
If Clinton does decide to make a second run at the White House in 2016, the Republicans (and the media) may want to re-litigate Benghazi and, more specifically, examine her role in the scandal. However, by that time, the incident will be four years removed from the public consciousness and any recollection of the events may be associated with the thoroughly-scapegoated Rice. Therefore, Hillary Clinton is, for all intents and purposes, getting a pass.
And that just may be one of the perks of uber-popularity.