Cokie & Steven V. Roberts: The booming Benghazi biz
Search the word "Benghazi," and up pops a paid link to a website that advertises: "Benghazi -- T-shirts, Sweatshirts, Mugs and More."
Click on the link and 401 items are offered for sale. They include a yellow backpack with red letters, reading, "Benghazi. Obama Slept Families Wept." A decal features former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and a bloody hand over the slogan, "Remember Benghazi." A steal at $4.29.
Our favorite: a powder-blue toddler outfit featuring an American flag and the always popular motto "Remember Benghazi." Except "remember" is misspelled -- no second "m."
This website is just one small example of the "Benghazi-Industrial Complex," a term coined by Michael Hirsh in Politico Magazine. For conservatives, Benghazi is big business: a full-fledged enterprise to exploit the tragic deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, in that Libyan city in September 2012.
Fox News plays a key role in the complex, often trumpeting Benghazi as the most important story in the world. A quick check of their website turned up seven videos related to the incident; of their six prime-time shows, four were promoting programs on the same topic. Bill O'Reilly promised a discussion on the question, "Will Benghazi keep Hillary Clinton from running in 2016?"
This obsession reflects the fervor of grassroots activists. National Journal reports that "someone tweets about Benghazi every 12 seconds. Not every 12 days or every 12 minutes, but every 12 seconds."
Republicans on Capitol Hill are doing their part, announcing this week the formation of a select committee to explore, yet again, what really happened in Benghazi. Politico reports that numerous previous investigations have produced 13 hearings, 25,000 pages of documents and 50 briefings. No matter. For the party faithful, Benghazi is a habit they cannot kick. And don't want to.
What's behind the Benghazi Biz? Money, for one thing. Someone's making a profit from all of those mugs and T-shirts. And the fundraising appeals write themselves: "Remember Benghazi! Donate Now!"
Politics, for another. The issue clearly energizes the party's roots, and the main reason that Republicans could capture the Senate in November is that their loyalists are more excited -- and more likely to vote -- than the Democrats.
As former senator Rick Santorum said on ABC's "This Week": "There's a firestorm out there across America among Republicans who don't think we've taken this issue on."
That "firestorm" goes far beyond Benghazi itself and taps into a deep-seated belief that Barack Obama is somehow an illegitimate president -- an African socialist who wasn't even born in America. A radio talk-show host in Texas told Steve this week that if the true story about Benghazi had surfaced during the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney would be president today.
That's an absurd statement. But the host sounded sincere. He really doesn't think Obama should be president.
He certainly doesn't think Hillary Clinton should be president either, and that's the most important motive behind the Benghazi Biz. That decal depicting her bloody hand, and O'Reilly's program about her 2016 intentions, are all part of a larger goal: Use Benghazi to blemish Clinton before the campaign even starts. Better yet, convince her not to run.
Let's be clear: The administration made three major mistakes concerning Benghazi. First, when four Americans die, security is insufficient. Period. Clinton was right to call the episode her "biggest regret" as secretary of state.
Second, the initial explanation given to the public was flawed. The attack was not a spontaneous protest, spawned by an anti-Muslim video, but a concerted and organized attack. The erroneous account might have been based on the best intelligence available, and it was soon corrected, but still, it was wrong.
The third mistake was withholding key emails from congressional investigators. The administration offers the ridiculous explanation that House Republicans did not ask for precisely the right material. But that's a stupid excuse that violates the first rule of crisis management: Release as much information as possible, as quickly as possible.
But is Benghazi a major scandal? Another Watergate? Not even close. And the Republican mania on the issue could eventually backfire -- which is exactly why Speaker John Boehner has long resisted appointing a select committee.
Do American voters care more about a jihad in Libya than about jobs in Lima or Lancaster? The answer is clearly no.
Republicans lost the last presidential election because their candidate seemed disinterested and disconnected, out of touch with the real problems of real people. Obsessing over Benghazi could send the same damaging message.