THE BLOG
09/26/2013 10:24 am ET Updated Nov 26, 2013

Hillary's To-Do List on Benghazi -- And Soon!

There are issues that you just have to get in front of if you're going to win an argument or an election. Among those who study persuasion, a term for this is "inoculation." You take a flu shot to prevent yourself from getting the flu. In politics, you inoculate against issues likely to be raised by your opponents before they have a chance to infect too many voters. When there's an impending political threat, your counter-narrative must be communicated quickly, widely, firmly and consistently.

The leader among potential election-breakers requiring Hillary Clinton's early attention is, of course, what has come to be known simply as "Benghazi." Regardless of yesterday's release of a State Department audit that (counter to specious GOP claims) confirmed as unbiased the review headed by Ambassador Thomas Pickering and former Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, the anti-Clinton brigade sees Benghazi as a premier weapon in its arsenal.

There are limits to how Secretary Clinton can inoculate against the droning replays of the now familiar out-of-context take on her reply to Senator Ron Johnson's (R-WI) insistence that the country was misled regarding the origins of the attack. This elicited from her a response that is rarely heard intact. It's sliced and diced for best effect.

Just so we remember, Secretary Clinton actually said this: "With all due respect, we had four dead Americans ... Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they'd go 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 keep it from ever happening again, Senator." Her point was that the most pressing issue is one of prevention, not that the death of four Americans does not matter. She likely wishes she'd said, "At this point what matters most..." instead of "What difference, at this point, does it make?" But that is water over the dam.

In advance of the Benghazi onslaught that will surely come if she runs for president, Secretary Clinton needs to (1) set a proactive tone -- a la "Let's talk about Benghazi." She needs to (2) repeatedly acknowledge that people have a right to ask what actually happened and what has and is being done to prevent similar attacks in the future, while (3) making the point, not the excuse, that fatal attacks against U.S. diplomats have happened during Democratic and Republican administrations alike but that toting up fatalities, like manipulating quotes for political gain, would be gratuitous, tasteless and futile.

President Obama recently took an it's-your-right-to-ask approach when he spoke to Americans about his reasons for choosing among options a military strike against Syria. Such acknowledgement wasn't his first approach, but by the time he spoke to the nation, he was making it clear that he understood and indeed welcomed questions and challenges.

It's important that Secretary Clinton take a similar approach, no matter how many times she has to explain what transpired during the Benghazi attack. In attitude and tone, she must from now on avoid even a whiff of resistance, annoyance or stridency when responding to challenges and charges on that issue. To do otherwise will only provide fuel for the fire.

With this approach to the topic firmly in place, Secretary Clinton should additionally provide a persuasive counter-narrative that surrounds the events with a full and truthful context composed of at least these arguments:

(1) What happened in Benghazi did not happen in isolation of budget and other decisions made in the Senate and the House.

(2) Events like the Benghazi attack as they transpire in real time are always different than those we envision in hindsight.

(3) No president or secretary of state is free of concern about diplomats -- and all have done what they considered the very best for their country at the times when similar security decisions were made.

(4) No one who serves this country is free of the burden of such losses. It credits no legislator, pundit or presidential candidate to use this issue as a club or to pretend they bear no responsibility at all.

Secretary Clinton needs to shape the message to fit her deepest understanding of the events -- proactively, sensitively and repeatedly. If she does so, most Americans will tire of seeing the politicizing of Benghazi to blame the one candidate who has openly and honestly respected their right to know the truth.

Kathleen latest book is the debut mystery-thriller Shadow Campus and she also blogs at kathleenkelleyreardon.com.

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