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How long will the Republicans obsess over Benghazi before they realize it is hurting them politically?

Since the September 11th attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, the Republican leadership has insisted that the Obama administration dangerously mishandled the situation. Just hours after the incident, then-presidential nominee Mitt Romney held a press conference and released a statement  suggesting that the Obama administration sympathized with the attackers. In a sign of gaffes to come, the hasty, politicized response was panned by both foreign policy experts and voters.

Republicans learned nothing from the negative reaction to Romney’s response, however. Soon after, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee,  took it upon himself to hold a politically charged hearing on the tragedy. The hearing uncovered no relevant information (aside from accidentally blowing the CIA’s cover in Libya). Yet Fox News and the rest of the right-wing media relentlessly hammered President Obama on the issue, even as the overheated rhetoric became increasingly divorced from reality.

Finally, during the second presidential debate, Romney challenged President Obama with the right-wing version of events — that the president refused to admit that the attack was an act of terror — only to be humiliated when moderator Candy Crowley stepped in, pointing out that according to transcripts, Obama had referred to the attack in precisely those words.

After two months of nonstop harping on Benghazi, voters sent Republicans a clear message on Election Day: They don’t care. According to exit polls, only five percent of voters listed foreign policy as the most important issue at stake in the election, and 56 percent of that group voted for President Obama (compared to just 33 percent for Romney). As Daniel W. Drezner points out in Foreign Policy, this marks the first exit poll in at least three decades in which the Democratic candidate for president outperformed the Republican on foreign policy.

In other words, every second that the Republicans spent focusing on Benghazi was wasted effort. Still, the right refuses to drop the issue.

Now Senate Republicans are promising “Watergate-style” hearings of their own to prove, as Senator John McCain put it, that President Obama was “not telling the truth about what happened there and what he knew and when he knew it.”

Furthermore, McCain reiterated that he would block U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s potential nomination as Secretary of State because of her televised statements after the Benghazi attacks. During his rant against Rice, McCain declared that the experienced diplomat and scholar is “not very bright” and “not qualified” for the job.

Set aside the ironic spectacle of McCain — who chose Sarah Palin for vice president — accusing anyone else of  proposing an unqualified appointment. Forget too for a moment that the complaints against Rice are based on a deliberate misreading of her words. McCain and his colleagues’ vendetta is also terrible politics.

Voters are sick of the partisan gridlock that has frozen Congress’ ability to work for them, and they tend to blame Republicans. Starting President Obama’s second term by blocking the nomination of Susan Rice — who would be one of the most well-qualified cabinet appointees in recent memory — is not a good way to solve that problem.

Furthermore, Republicans were soundly defeated on Election Day largely because of their failure to reach out to women and African-American voters. Publicly insulting Susan Rice’s intelligence is unlikely to help the GOP expand its tent, to say the least.

If Senate Republicans simply must pursue this fight, however, President Obama served notice this afternoon that he is more than ready to step into the ring.

After Election Day, many pundits suggested that the Republican Party failed because it became trapped in the right-wing media bubble, and disconnected from the reality that most voters saw. If the Republicans’ continued obsession with the Benghazi “scandal” is any indication, the party has not yet woken up.

Photo credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite

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