Commentary Magazine


Is Benghazi Taking Its Toll on Hillary Clinton’s Poll Numbers?

In discussing Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential prospects, media commentators have made a common and constant error, which I tried to point out repeatedly. They noted Clinton’s high approval ratings as secretary of state, and suggested those numbers buoyed her chances in 2016. But her approval numbers at State were unimpressive: her predecessors had those numbers too, and some had approval ratings even higher than Clinton. Secretary of state is viewed as an apolitical position and the face of the American government abroad, and as such earns inflated poll numbers.

I pointed out that those numbers not only don’t portend future political success (anyone remember President Colin Powell, who left office with a 77 percent approval rating at State?), but they would also come down to earth once Clinton left Foggy Bottom and began to re-enter the political arena. And so they have. Quinnipiac’s new survey finds Clinton’s favorability rating dropping to 52 percent (from Quinnipiac’s previous finding of 61). Her once-daunting lead over hypothetical challengers has narrowed to a surmountable 8 percent over Rand Paul and Jeb Bush.

And all that comes before Clinton actually begins campaigning–that is, if she decides to run. It would be difficult to beat her in a Democratic primary, but even the typical primary campaign process would expose some of her flaws as a candidate, as Keith Koffler writes in Politico. Clinton is hardworking, determined, sharp, and well connected, but that hasn’t stopped her from being, in Koffler’s determination, “the most overrated politician of her generation.” Koffler gets it exactly right when he notes that after her failure to produce results in health care, “The rest of Clinton’s record reads like an excruciatingly long CV that seeks to overwhelm with content but out of which nothing particularly impressive pops out.”

That might not have been such a weakness before Benghazi. Genuinely revolutionary foreign-policy accomplishments emanating from the State Department are the exception, not the rule. The fact that the dispute over Kashmir remains unresolved is not a failure of each American secretary of state, and the same goes for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other such issues. If anything, a bit of modesty from America’s diplomats would do them some good. But Benghazi changed the calculus on her tenure because Clinton’s massive failure of leadership, organization, attention, and accountability in the death of an American ambassador and three others tips the scales in the wrong direction for Clinton.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times conducted one of its “Room for Debate” roundtables on Clinton and her legacy at State. No one was able to drum up a genuine accomplishment, because there weren’t any. She was praised for traveling a lot, which seems damning with faint praise at best. She was lauded as a voice for women’s rights, which is important but which yielded no tangible results. No doubt she will use this experience in the campaign by name-dropping world leaders and other impressive names from her Rolodex. But sounding like a living, breathing Tom Friedman column isn’t going to win over many of those who don’t already support her.

It isn’t just Benghazi, either; there isn’t much for Clinton to brag about in the developments of the Arab Spring or her administration’s silent acceptance of an overtly anti-Semitic new Islamist tyrant in Egypt. Her mishandling of the Russian “reset” is a topic she’ll probably want to ignore as well. Which leaves the mostly superficial “pivot” to Asia. Yet “Vote for Hillary: She’s been to Laos” strikes me as an underwhelming campaign theme.

None of this may matter in a Democratic primary, however, since her party seems desperate to hand her the nomination and because the Democrats have for a decade run solely on identity politics and stayed miles away from serious policy discussions. And whatever her flaws, Clinton would be a far better nominee than her would-be rivals like Martin O’Malley and Joe Biden–though Biden’s chances would depend much on how the Obama presidency ends.

But for a general election, it should matter a great deal. Clinton is no longer an up-and-coming party insurgent. She is a veteran near the end of her political career, and ought to have some accomplishments–or any, in fact. She will have to make the argument that if they elect her, voters can expect more than just speeches and photo-ops. That might be a tougher sell than her fans realize.