MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The White House hopes the Senate will confirm Chuck Hagel next week as defense secretary. Republicans delayed that vote with a filibuster last week. One thing they were angry about was Benghazi. The attack on the U.S. consulate in that Libyan city last September killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador.
And Benghazi didn't just come up in Hagel's confirmation. It was also a flashpoint in the hearing for Jack Lew to be treasury secretary. NPR's Ari Shapiro looks at how and why Benghazi has become a rallying cry for Republicans.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Last night in the town of Rock Hill, South Carolina, Republican congressman Mick Mulvaney met with his constituents. When he opened the floor for questions, one man brought up Benghazi, and Mulvaney spoke about it with passion.
REP. MICK MULVANEY: There were times in our nation's past where if our ambassador was killed, it was a cause for going to war.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Wow.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yes. That's right.
MULVANEY: We're treating it like it was a cause to - you know, go down and order a pizza, and that's just not - that's not right.
SHAPIRO: Mulvaney mentioned the president, and someone in the audience shouted, impeach him!
MULVANEY: Everybody says, now wait a second, what are you guys going to do about impeachment? Now remember, OK, this is not an impeachment discussion. You don't get impeached for having bad judgment.
SHAPIRO: Benghazi has become a sort of catchword. To Republicans, it symbolizes everything bad about the Obama administration. It's not the first word to fill that role. At the start of the president's first term, it was Obamacare; later, Solyndra. Now, Benghazi helps Republicans to raise money, fire up the base, and take a whack at the guy in charge.
Unlike Obamacare or Solyndra, this is an incident where the administration acknowledges it screwed up. Tommy Vietor is a White House spokesman.
TOMMY VIETOR: We need to make sure that never happens again. We all have a role in this. And when the focus gets politicized - when words like cover-up are used, when we're focused only on talking points, not what do these individuals need to keep them safe, that's when I think we kind of miss the runway.
SHAPIRO: Beyond the pressure cookers of Congress and a.m. talk radio, even many Republicans agree that the debate over Benghazi has moved away from substance into a political hall of mirrors. Here's Republican strategist Ed Rogers.
ED ROGERS: I missed the meeting among Republicans where it was decided this would become a - angry cause celebre that should be pursued at all costs and with no holds barred.
SHAPIRO: Juan Zarate was a counterterrorism adviser to President Bush. He says people could be asking meaty questions about the nature of the evolving terrorist threat, but they're not.
JUAN ZARATE: I think it's been substance that's lost amidst the debate about talking points and the way that the administration portrayed the incidents in the early days after the attacks.
SHAPIRO: There was a substantive investigation into the attacks. Retired ambassador Thomas Pickering co-chaired the independent commission. The State Department accepted all of his recommendations and fired four people. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The employees were not fired. One resigned; the other three were placed on administrative leave.]
That was two months ago. Now, Pickering says, the Benghazi debate is in a new chapter.
THOMAS PICKERING: The political questions will - obviously - continue as long as people feel there's political mileage to be made of them.
SHAPIRO: Is this par for the course in Washington, or is this unusual?
PICKERING: I think this is quite unusual. This is the first time that this kind of a review has been so politicized.
SHAPIRO: One reason for the politicization is that the attack took place in the final weeks of a presidential campaign. But the election was three months ago and still, the Benghazi drumbeat continues after 10 congressional hearings and many more staff briefings. Tad Devine is a Democratic political consultant. He points out that for the first time in decades, Republicans trail in polls on foreign policy and national security.
TAD DEVINE: And I think they see an opportunity here to try to diminish the president on one of his strongest suits.
SHAPIRO: Republican strategist Rogers fears it could be having the opposite effect.
ROGERS: I think there is Benghazi fatigue - a lot of conscientious followers of the news that are somewhat bewildered by why this issue has lingered.
SHAPIRO: But data from the Pew Research Center suggests that not every voter is following this story equally. In November, Pew found that Republicans were twice as likely to follow Benghazi closely as Democrats or independents. That could be because conservative media hammered the story nonstop. But the discrepancy suggests that this rallying cry could be effective at ginning the base without driving away people on the other side, who may not be paying attention.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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