Republican 2016 hopefuls vie for headlines by savaging Clinton
For right-wingers enraged by Obama's inaugural address, attacking Hillary Clinton was irresistible
DID the 2016 US presidential election campaign begin yesterday? The performance of a couple of putative Republican candidates at congressional committees of inquiry into the death of US Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi last summer certainly suggested it did.
Their snarling-dog attack on Hillary Clinton, performing her final duty as Barack Obama's first-term Secretary of State, also suggested that the Republicans have learnt little from last year's repudiation at the ballot box. They have certainly failed to chain the golems they created when the Tea Party was all the rage.
Clinton faced first Senators and then Congressmen from the House of Representatives in back-to-back committee sessions on Capitol Hill.
It was never going to be easy. Republicans had tried to pin the Benghazi killings on the failures of Clinton's State Department and Obama's foreign policy as an election issue, and are frustrated that they failed.
They had one live round: the State Department's initial response that Stevens had been killed by chance in riots sparked by the notorious anti-Islam video film made by a Coptic Egyptian American in California, which went viral on YouTube throughout the Arab world. It turned out that al-Qaeda-linked rebels now wreaking havoc in Mali had been plotting the attack all along.
Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin tipped as a presidential runner for 2016, was the first to attack, suggesting that this was an attempt at a cover-up designed to protect Obama's re-election campaign.
Clinton had already come close to tears talking about Stevens's family, and her response took the committee by surprise. She raised her voice, and Johnson continued to interrupt her.
"With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans," she said. "Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk last night who decided to kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator."
The shouting match made news, and Johnson ended up on the defensive. At first, he tweeted his supporters with boasts of his challenge to a favourite target of the American right. But then he found himself explaining that he had not meant to be "obnoxious", but had kept up his attack only because Clinton was "filibustering".
Senator John McCain, the Republican from Arizona defeated by Obama in 2008, saw no need to relent. "It's been a cover-up from the beginning," he said.
Then the action moved to the House, where Rand Paul, a hot favourite of the Tea Party who has already said he's interested in running for the White House in 2016, took up the cudgels.
He criticised Clinton for a "failure of leadership" and called the Benghazi attack the "greatest tragedy since 9/11", underlining once again the Right's contempt for knowledge of history and the world beyond America.
"Had I been president," he went on, "I would have relieved Secretary Clinton of her duties."
The attacks seem particularly mean-spirited by coincidence of timing. Only on Monday, America seemed able to draw a deep breath of relief at the spectacle of a very different Washington at Obama's inauguration. There was power and splendour and celebration of America's "inclusiveness" and its old dreams of progress and a better life for all.
But Republicans were enraged by Obama's opportunity to rub their noses in it with a celebration of progressive Democrat values he did not dare mention during his campaign. Savaging Clinton two days later must have been irresistible.
But in terms of 2016, it looks more and more as if the Republicans are wasting their ammunition as well as risking alienating more decent Americans.
Clinton - unlike Congress, the Tea Party or the 2012 Republican candidate Mitt Romney - enjoys a 60 per cent approval rating in the polls. In theory, that makes her the front-runner for the next go-around.
But time and age may be proving her undoing. At 65, she has had a dreadful winter, and it shows: stomach ailments picked up on her travels, and probably brought on by exhaustion, laid her low, and were to blame for a fall at home in which she suffered concussion. That, in turn, caused a blood clot that put her in hospital, in peril of a stroke.
In a presidential run, health and strength are a bigger issue than technical culpability for the failures of a diplomatic security team, and in 2016 she will be 69.
On the Capitol Steps on Monday, on her husband's arm, treading carefully, pale behind large black-framed spectacles, Hillary Clinton did not look like a candidate fit and able to run American from 2016 to 2024.
The attacks on her yesterday seem all the more misguided and less gracious for that.