WASHINGTON - In recent days, Foreign Policy's tally of the number of Hillary Clinton references during Wednesday's Benghazi hearing has become grist for politicians and reporters to extrapolate wider political truths about the House Oversight Committee investigation.
In total, we counted 32 discussions of the former secretary of state in almost five hours of testimony. To many, this meant one thing: Republicans used the hearing to tarnish Clinton's leadership credentials - a calculated early strike ahead of her anticipated bid for the presidency in 2016.
Here's Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday morning: "My concern is when Hillary Clinton's name is mentioned 32 times in a hearing, then the point of the hearing is to discredit the secretary of state, who has very high popularity and may well be a candidate for president."
Here's Reuters' Patricia Zengerle on Thursday night: "Clinton is clearly a major focus of Republicans' attempts to get to the heart of what they believe is a national security scandal. Foreign Policy magazine counted 32 separate discussions mentioning Clinton during Wednesday's hearing of the House Oversight Committee."
Here's Politico's Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman on Thursday afternoon: "Republicans now seem willing to cast the State Department response to the Sept. 11, 2012 attack in Libya as a referendum on Hillary Rodham Clinton's fitness to lead the country - and are abandoning a long-held hands-off-Hillary strategy rooted in her popularity with women of all races, ages and political stripes. Clinton's name was invoked over and over during the hearing (a blogger for Foreign Policy counted 32 mentions) . . ."
Without a doubt, there's a strong incentive for Republicans to chip away at Clinton's record-high favorability ratings before the next presidential election, and it would be naive to assume that many of the GOP questions were driven by altruistic intentions. But the number 32 is not evidence in and of itself of naked political opportunism.
While negative GOP remarks about Clinton outnumbered positive comments about her, the references to Clinton by Democrats - some prompted by allegations made during the hearing, some not - were universally favorable.
In this respect, a dispatch from the hearing by Roll Call Senior Editor David Drucker is instructive:
New York Democrat Rep. Carolyn Maloney opened her question time with a full throttled defense of Clinton, despite the fact that the former secretary of state's name had yet to arise in any meaningful way at that early point in the hearing. None of the witnesses had yet made comments that were particularly problematic for the possible 2016 presidential candidate. But Maloney's very deliberate remarks signaled that Democrats are sensitive to how the House GOP investigation into Benghazi might affect Clinton, regardless of its partisan overtones.
"I find it truly disturbing and very unfortunate that when Americans come under attack the first thing some did in this country was attack Americans, attack the military, attack the president, attack the State Department, attack the former senator from the great state of New York and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton," Maloney said, before going on to question the witnesses on the fact that the secretary of state's signature is included on all sorts of documents he or she never actually sees.
So let's not discount the reflexive Republican penchant to attack Clinton. But let's not give Democrats a pass on the reflexive penchant to defend her.