There is another point Dan McCarthy makes in his post on Benghazi and Republicans that I’d like to discuss a bit more:
The specifics are not exactly comparable, of course: Carter’s humiliations were seen as part of a deteriorating strategic picture for the U.S. in general, while Reagan’s Middle East debacle was not. But it seems clear that differences in each president’s reputation—a reputation influenced by his party’s overall brand—played as great a role as differences in the world situation in shaping voters’ responses to these setbacks.
The GOP is now in the position that Carter’s party was in, and in contrast Obama has acquired something like Reagan’s “Teflon” coating—as the Benghazi episode illustrates.
The comparison to the barracks bombing is a useful one, and it may help explain why the Benghazi attack didn’t become more of an issue in the election. Libya and Lebanon are comparable in the history of U.S. foreign interventions for being unnecessary and unpopular at the beginning, but having little or no effect on the president’s popularity at home. Reagan’s intervention in Lebanon was unwise and unnecessary, and when it turned into a disaster one would think that it should have damaged him politically, but that didn’t happen. Public support for the Libyan war was the lowest of any U.S. intervention since Lebanon, but it never translated into a political liability for Obama. Between the invasion of Grenada and the natural, albeit somewhat odd, tendency to rally to the president in the wake of an attack, Reagan’s approval rating actually improved in the fall of 1983 and public support for the mission in Lebanon likewise increased.
The more generally satisfied the public is with a president, the easier it is for him to absorb the damage from failures. In the event of attacks on Americans, a reasonably popular president is going to receive the benefit of the doubt whether he deserves it or not. Unlike Carter, whose reputation was daily taking a beating as the hostage crisis dragged on month after month, Reagan and Obama didn’t have to endure the constant drip-drip of negative coverage that such a prolonged problem brought with it. It also helped that Reagan and Obama could point to successes, whether here or overseas, that gave most of the public confidence that they generally seemed to know what they were doing. In the end, the public perceived these attacks as aberrations because they couldn’t be fitted into a story about general incompetence or failure, and the public was more inclined to hold the attackers responsible.