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The Clintons go on offense

Bill and Hillary Clinton unleashed a double-barreled defense of the former secretary of state's record and health in back to back appearances in Washington.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses the American Jewish Committee Global Forum 2014 May 14, 2014 in Washington, DC.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses the American Jewish Committee Global Forum 2014 May 14, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Fending off new attacks ahead of a possible presidential bid, Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton unleashed a double-barreled defense of the former secretary of state's record and health in back-to-back appearances Wednesday at two separate Washington events. 

In a speech to the American Jewish Committee, Hillary Clinton offered a detailed defense of her work confronting Iran’s nuclear program as secretary of state. Minutes later, at a separate talk, the former president defended his wife's handling of the attack on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya and said he was "dumbfounded" by GOP operative Karl Rove's apparent assertion that she may have suffered a "traumatic brain injury" in a 2012 fall.  

Rove denies using the phrase but says concerns about the former first lady's health are fair game if she seeks the presidency. 

The assertive words from both Clintons came after a rough patch for the former secretary of state.

House Republicans last week voted to create a special committee to investigate the 2012 attack on Benghazi which killed 4 Americans including Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens. The fatal assault has already been the subject of a dozen congressional hearings and an investigation by an outside panel that found no evidence of a political cover-up. 

In her speech Wednesday, Hillary Clinton took a hawkish tone toward Iran. 

“President Obama and I knew we had a new choice: Keep reading from the same old playbook, politically safe but practically unsustainable, or tear up the old playbook and devise a new strategy,” Clinton said of her approach.

Clinton said her initial openness to good faith talks with Iran spurred the international community to embrace an aggressive new sanctions regime when they refused, eventually pushing the country to return to negotiations.

“Not even Russia or China could deny what was going on -- as much as they sometimes would have liked to,” she recalled. “So we went to the UN Security Council and proposed some of the toughest multilateral sanctions ever on record. I worked for months to round up the votes.”

In describing her role, she laid the groundwork to take credit if a temporary deal reached by her successor John Kerry leads to a permanent agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program. At the same time, she argued that the international consensus she had helped engineer would facilitate a tough response if Kerry’s talks collapse.

“If there is no agreement, the onus is on the Iranians,” she said. “And let us be clear: every option does remain on the table."

The “every option is on the table line” is often used by American and Israeli officials as a diplomatic euphemism for possible military action.

Republicans have often argued that Clinton’s weak spot is her inability to point to any one unambiguous and popularly known achievement as the nation's top diplomat. This line of attack showed some signs of gaining traction last month when an Associated Press reporter forcefully challenged a State Department spokeswoman to name how an accountability initiative started by Clinton had improved the administration’s performance.

Clinton’s remarks on Iran offered up one of the clearest examples yet of how she might discuss her foreign policy record on the presidential trail should she run. She’ll get her biggest chance yet to try and define her time at the State Department next month when her new book Hard Choices comes out.

Meanwhile, the former president rebutted critics of his wife's handling of Benghazi. “Hillary did what she should have done,” he said, at the Pete Peterson Fiscal Summit, adding, “Secretaries of State never were involved directly in these security decisions.”

Bill Clinton also mocked Rove for raising concerns about her injuries today after conservative critics previously suggested she had faked a concussion and blood clot to keep from testifying on Benghazi. 

“First they said she faked her concussion and now they say she is auditioning for her part on the Walking Dead,” Clinton said. “If she does, I must be in really tough shape because she is still quicker than I am.”

In general, the last few weeks have felt like a new phase in the presidential sweepstakes. 2016 is no longer some distant point on the political map. The major candidates in both parties will have to make their final decisions within the next few months as to whether they are running. In Clinton’s case, big money groups both supporting and opposing her potential candidacy are already off and running.

As the date approaches, Clinton has sounded more like a candidate on domestic policy as well. In a speech earlier this month, she declared that America’s gun laws are “way out of balance” and denounced Republican state legislatures that had passed bills expanding the ability of residents to openly carry firearms.