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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

The Republican Party’s obsession with turning the attack against the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi into a Watergate-level scandal may not have paid any dividends in the 2012 presidential election, but that won’t stop them from trying again in 2016.

Karl Rove’s SuperPAC, American Crossroads, has released an inflammatory attack ad targeting former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in what will surely be the first of many misleading attempts to ground Clinton’s hypothetical presidential campaign before it even begins.

The ad, titled simply “Benghazi,” splices together the testimony of former State Department employee Gregory Hicks with Clinton’s testimony in April and various news clips, to reach the completely unsubstantiated claim that Clinton participated in a “cover-up.”

The ad, which is just the latest example of the GOP’s decades-long pattern of scandal-trolling the former First Lady, provides a clear template for the attacks that will be leveled against Clinton if she does choose to seek the White House in 2016.

It is also deeply misleading, presenting a long list of half-truths and baseless speculation as rock-solid evidence that Clinton is engaged in a cover-up (though what, exactly, she supposedly hoped to gain from her obfuscation remains unspecified.)

Whether the “Benghazi cover-up” line of attack will actually damage Clinton’s status as the overwhelming front-runner to succeed President Barack Obama remains unclear. Republicans tried the same line of attack against Obama — starting with Mitt Romney’s universally-panned statement just hours after the attacks, and continuing with weeks of similarly overheated rhetoric — only to see the president easily re-elected. Adding insult to injury, Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate in three decades to out-poll his Republican opponent on foreign policy — a feat that he presumably could not have pulled off if the Benghazi hysteria had made an impact with voters.

Furthermore, American Crossroads’ pathetic 1.29 percent return on investment on its $103,559,672 of political spending in the 2012 campaign casts serious doubt on its ability to drive the narrative in the next election.

So while the right wing can — and almost certainly will — continue trying to turn Benghazi into the scandal that keeps Hillary Clinton out of the White House, in reality their effort seems just as likely to fail as Fast & Furious, Solyndra, and all of the other manufactured “scandals” that came before it.

Photo by expertinfantry/ CC BY 2.0

At this moment, the president of the United States is threatening to "throw out" the votes of millions of Americans to hijack an election that he seems more than likely to lose. Donald Trump is openly demanding that state authorities invalidate lawful absentee ballots, no different from the primary ballot he mailed to his new home state of Florida, for the sole purpose of cheating. And his undemocratic scheme appears to enjoy at least nominal support from the Supreme Court, which may be called upon to adjudicate the matter.

But what is even worse than Trump's coup plot — and the apparent assent of unprincipled jurists such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — is the Democratic Party's feeble response to this historic outrage. It is the kind of issue that Republicans, with their well-earned reputation for political hardball, would know how to exploit fully and furiously.

They know because they won the same game in Florida 20 years ago.

During that ultimate legal showdown between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when every single vote mattered, a Democratic lawyer argued in a memorandum to the Gore team that the validity of absentee ballots arriving after Election Day should be challenged. He had the law on his side in that particular instance — but not the politics.

As soon as the Republicans got hold of that memo, they realized that it was explosive. Why? Many of the late ballots the Democrats aimed to invalidate in Florida had been sent by military voters, and the idea of discarding the votes of service personnel was repellent to all Americans. Former Secretary of State James Baker, who was overseeing the Florida recount for Bush, swiftly denounced the Democratic plot against the soldiers, saying: "Here we have ... these brave young men and women serving us overseas. And the postmark on their ballot is one day late. And you're going to deny him the right to vote?"

Never mind the grammar; Baker's message was powerful — and was followed by equally indignant messages in the following days from a parade of prominent Bush backers including retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the immensely popular commander of U.S. troops in the Desert Storm invasion that drove Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. Fortuitously, Schwarzkopf happened to be on the scene as a resident of Florida.

As Jeffrey Toobin recounted in Too Close to Call, his superb book on the Florida 2000 fiasco, the Democrats had no choice but to retreat. "I would give the benefit of the doubt to ballots coming in from military personnel," conceded then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate, during a defensive appearance on Meet the Press. But Toobin says Gore soon realized that to reject military ballots would render him unable to serve as commander in chief — and that it would be morally wrong.

Fast-forward to 2020, when many of the same figures on the Republican side are now poised to argue that absentee ballots, which will include many thousands of military votes — should not be counted after Election Day, even if they arrived on time. Among those Republicans is Justice Kavanaugh, who made the opposite argument as a young lawyer working for Bush in Florida 20 years ago. Nobody expects legal consistency or democratic morality from a hack like him, but someone should force him and his Republican colleagues to own this moment of shame.

Who can do that? Joe Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party ought to be exposing the Republican assault on military ballots — and, by the same token, every legally valid absentee ballot — every day. But the Democrats notoriously lack the killer instinct of their partisan rivals, even at a moment of existential crisis like this one.

No, this is clearly a job for the ex-Republicans of the Lincoln Project, who certainly recall what happened in Florida in 2000. They have the attitude and aptitude of political assassins. They surely know how to raise hell over an issue like military votes — and now is the time to exercise those aggressive skills in defense of democracy.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.