By Nicholas Wapshott
(Reuters) - In World War Two, the Libyan port of Benghazi was hard fought over, changing hands five times between Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps and the Allied forces. Seventy years on, the city has again become the focus of a fierce battle, this time between Republicans and Democrats over the terrorist attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans on September 11, 2012.
This week the U.S. House committee resumed the fight, with GOP members eager to show the Obama administration at fault. Because Hillary Clinton has already emerged as the 2016 Democratic frontrunner, determining what exactly happened in Benghazi that day has become the first scuffle in the next presidential election.
In the weeks running up to President Barack Obama's re-election, conservative commentators thought that in the Benghazi deaths they had found an explosive issue that would shock the nation. Despite their best efforts, which elicited an admission of responsibility from the Secretary of State, the Benghazi campaign did not move the pollsters' needle. The campaign to implicate the president and Clinton was long on innuendo and short on facts. There was no smoking gun. As a result, voters did not grasp what they were being urged to be indignant about.
Despite this indifference, Republicans are pressing on. The former presidential hopeful and Fox News host Mike Huckabee has high hopes Benghazi will lead to impeachment. "I believe that before it's all over, this president will not fill out his full term," he said. "This is not minor. It wasn't minor when Richard Nixon lied to the American people and worked with those in his administration to cover up what really happened in Watergate."
But even after the House revisited Benghazi and took evidence from three State Department whistleblowers this week, the most alarming front-page headline Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal could come up with was: "Diplomat Airs Attack Details." And its low-key editorial, "The Benghazi Awakening," was a quiet plea for more information, not a cry for impeachment.
Even the most eager conspiracy theorists may be excused for stifling a yawn. Once again, Republicans have raced off in their own direction, leaving the rest of us wondering what all the fuss is about.
The Benghazi boondoggle has wider implications. The eternal rule of politics is that elections are won and lost in the center ground. It is in the middle that the undecided and uncommitted are to be found. Those who only think about politics every four years are open to persuasion in a way devoted partisans are not. So why, when week after week it has failed to gain traction with Benghazi, is the GOP still cracking the whip at this long-dead nag?
Benghazi is not the only subject that excites the GOP but leaves voters cold. A party set on achieving government looks at what is concerning moderates and formulates policies to meet their needs. Exit polls show 56 percent of "moderates" voted for Obama, which ensured his re-election. This does not mean the GOP must kowtow to focus groups and pollsters, but it does mean being open enough to hear what voters are saying, not putting on headphones and ploughing on regardless with pet obsessions.
Gun control is a case in point. Soon after 20 children were shot dead in Newtown, Connecticut, 90 percent of voters wanted universal background checks and 60 percent tighter restrictions on guns. Nearly five months later, the anger and despair has abated, but still half the electorate want Congress to pass a new gun control law.
An indication of how guns have become a key issue for many is the way the gun control campaign group around Gabby Gifford, the gun-owning "blue dog" Democrat House member shot in the head in 2011, has in such a short time attracted 366,000 members and raised $11 million.
A party eager for power would take note of the strength of public passions around the shooting of schoolchildren and work to find a compromise that would preserve gun rights while keeping weapons out of the hands of criminals and crazies.
Yet Republicans know better. In the name of the Second Amendment, accompanied by Democrats from rural, gun-toting states, they resist approving even the most temperate measure in the Senate and will not even allow the House to vote. They let their case be made by divisive, implausible figures like the NRA's tone-deaf Wayne LaPierre. To middle-ground voters, on this issue Republicans appear unreasonable and closed-minded.
Immigration reform follows a similar path. Armed with exit polls showing Hispanics voting 71 percent for Obama and 27 percent for Romney, a party intent on winning the White House would overwhelmingly back immigration reform.
As Ronald Reagan put it, "Latinos are Republican. They just don't know it yet." But Republicans cannot even agree what addressing the nation's 11 million undocumented workers would cost if, as is certain, the vast majority were allowed to stay. Looking at the abuse heaped upon those, like Marco Rubio, who lead GOP efforts at reform, middle-ground Hispanics would rightly conclude that the party does not yet deserve their affection.
Some in the GOP leadership recognize that they are seen as unbending and out of touch. Having tried to blame the press for "shoving us in the corner," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor concedes his party's leadership is to blame.
"We also want to speak to the people who, frankly, have begun to turn us off because they don't feel we have an agenda that speaks to them," he said. "What are we doing for that assistant manager of a fast-food restaurant?" Little wonder that a majority of Republican voters disapprove of the party's leaders, and fewer than one in five independents rate them.
To become so detached from the wishes of ordinary middle-ground voters is particularly strange for a party that favors business and champions the free market. There are companies who successfully nurture a narrow niche and turn a decent profit. Fox News comes to mind. But those who do best from market forces are those who take note of the appetites of all their potential customers and design their goods accordingly.
Those who ignore what the public wants and introduce unpopular products, like Ford and the Edsel, Coca-Cola and New Coke, and most recently Microsoft and Windows 8, must make amends quickly or be forever tainted.
Right now the Republicans leadership is peddling unpopular policies to a loyal minority. To win in 2016, pandering to a niche is not enough; it needs to please more than half of America. Any business leader will tell them the same.
If the GOP were a company, it would be going bust.
(Nicholas Wapshott is a Reuters columnist)
(Nicholas Wapshott is the former New York bureau chief of The Times of London. Previously, he was editor of the Saturday Times of London, and founding editor of The Times Magazine. He is a regular broadcaster on MSNBC, PBS, and FOX News. He is the author of "Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage" (2007). His "Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics" was published by W.W.Norton in October. )