Less than five months after Barack Obama began his second term, the 2016 presidential campaign kicked off this weekend with a Benghazi-themed attack ad that takes direct aim at Hillary Clinton.
The 90-second web ad, called “Benghazi”, was issued by the Karl Rove–founded American Crossroads, which spent more than $21 million in the last election cycle. It is the freshest evidence that hyperpartisan super-PAC slush funds are now a core part of the permanent campaign.
This American Crossroads ad matters because of its unsubtle purpose: a preemptive strike against a potential Clinton presidential campaign in 2016. Remember that through 2008, Clinton was widely considered the most polarizing figure in American politics. The days of Hillary as Republicans’ favorite member of the Obama cabinet are over. This dynamic was unlikely to the point of absurdity—a case of political amnesia brought on by a combination of her voting record in the Senate and the ’08 campaign-era conviction that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Using graphics best suited to a spy film, the first words on the screen are “September 11th, 2012”—emphasizing the date’s talismanic importance in making the case that Democrats are weak on terrorism even in the wake of the killing of bin Laden. Briskly laying out the sequence of the Benghazi attacks, the ad then cites the “2 a.m. phone call” to the then–secretary of State from Gregory Hicks, the deputy station chief in Libya, who testified in Congress last week that he described the attacks as they were occurring as “terrorism.” It is no accident that the “2 a.m. call” neatly recalls the Clinton campaign’s famous 2008 3 a.m. phone-call attack ad directed at Barack Obama.
The Rove ad never mentions President Obama by name and only shows him briefly beside Hillary Clinton at Andrews Air Force Base days after the attacks, when the bodies of Ambassador Stevens and his aides arrived back in the United States. The clip of Clinton speaking is instructive because it cherry-picks perhaps the most credible criticism of the Obama administration in the wake of the Benghazi attack: Hillary incorrectly blaming the “awful Internet video that we had nothing to do with.”
This blame-the-video impulse echoes the Obama administration’s official reluctance —also seen in the classification of the Fort Hood shooting as “workplace violence” rather than “terrorism” —to call out Islamist terrorism by name.
But in Rove’s video, the culprit is not Obama administration policy, but Clinton. The unceremonious demotion of Hicks after the attack is used as evidence—the latest patriotic, middle-aged white man whose career was sacrificed on the altar of her ambition.
The final cut comes in the “just asking” format always popular with conspiracy theorists: “Was she part of a cover-up?” The ad is quick to answer itself in the affirmative, after airing Clinton’s now infamous “What difference does it make?” pushback to Sen. Ron Johnson in her post-Benghazi testimony. Never mind that Clinton’s next sentence (always omitted from partisan replays) was this: “It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator.” Not so much a callous smoking gun as a practical statement of fact.
The fact that American Crossroads weighed in so heavily in an attempt to tie Clinton to Benghazi is a reminder of the outsize role that these hyperpartisan shadow-money groups now play in our politics. The Ohio-branch IRS targeting of Tea Party–associated 501(c)4s was unethical and inappropriate, but investigation of the many shadow-money groups playing politics while doling out tax breaks to donors is overdue.
American Crossroads just released what must be the earliest attack ad in presidential campaign history—and it is a sign of things to come.