Beng­hazi com­mit­tee re­flects a broader breakdown of the Repub­li­can Party

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - Dan Balz dan.balz@wash­post.com

Former sec­re­tary of state Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton’s ap­pear­ance be­fore the House Beng­hazi com­mit­tee pro­vided one more ex­am­ple of the breakdown of a Repub­li­can Party torn by fac­tion­al­ism and heav­ily in­flu­enced by a cadre of sup­port­ers who are far less in­ter­ested in gov­ern­ing than in ex­press­ing its anger.

By the time the com­mit­tee ended 11 hours of ques­tion­ing of the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial fron­trun­ner Thurs­day, the long day of tes­ti­mony had come to sym­bol­ize seven years of Repub­li­can frus­tra­tion with and con­tempt for the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Pres­i­dent Obama — and the fears within the party that it could be fac­ing an­other four or eight years of Demo­cratic oc­cu­pa­tion of the White House.

This com­bustible mix al­ready had brought dis­or­der to the search for a suc­ces­sor to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and has turned the Repub­li­can race for the White House on its head. The Repub­li­cans are at a mo­ment when events are forc­ing them to re­think and re­group, but to what end?

What hap­pens in the fight for the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion is the most im­por­tant test of where the party may be head­ing. The GOP pri­mary elec­torate ap­pears en­am­ored with two can­di­dates — Don­ald Trump and Ben Car­son — with no ex­pe­ri­ence in elec­tive of­fice and no clear prin­ci­ples or guide­lines for how they would gov­ern.

Be­hind them are politi­cians with cur­rent or past elec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence, some of whom have gov­erned as chief ex­ec­u­tives in their states. But given the mood of the Repub­li­can pri­mary elec­torate, many of them are play­ing to the an­gry crowds in the GOP bleach­ers, feed­ing rather than mod­u­lat­ing the anger that is out there.

The pres­i­den­tial con­test mir­rors the un­rest that long has left the House Repub­li­cans a largely dys­func­tional fam­ily. The fact that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) ap­pears likely to be­come the next House speaker is one po­ten­tially pos­i­tive sign of a restoration. But whether Ryan can tame the re­bel­lious con­ser­va­tives in his con­fer­ence is far from clear.

The party’s ills seemed to crys­tal­lize in the hear­ing room Thurs­day in ways that prob­a­bly worry many Repub­li­cans. All the de­nials in ad­vance that dam­ag­ing Clin­ton was not the com­mit­tee’s main goal were swept away by the tone, tenor and sub­ject mat­ter of much of the ques­tion­ing by the Repub­li­can ma­jor­ity.

In the short run, at least, the com­mit­tee prob­a­bly did more to help, rather than hin­der, Clin­ton in her bid to win the White House a year from now. In re­al­ity, the day’s events did more to shine a spot­light on a dam­aged con­gres­sional over­sight process, a com­mit­tee with­out a clear ob­jec­tive and a party de­ter­mined to strike back at the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s poli­cies and pri­or­i­ties.

Clin­ton’s record as Obama’s sec­re­tary of state is cer­tainly fair game in the gen­eral elec­tion, and she will have to de­fend it. She was a prin­ci­pal ad­vo­cate of a Libya pol­icy that has left that coun­try in chaos. She will have to em­brace or dis­tance her­self from other as­pects of the Obama record over­seas.

As sec­re­tary of state at the time of the 2012 Beng­hazi at­tacks, she bears re­spon­si­bil­ity for what hap­pened in the at­tacks that killed four Amer­i­cans, in­clud­ing U.S. Am­bas­sador J. Christo­pher Stevens.

On the mat­ter of why the Beng­hazi diplo­matic out­post was so poorly de­fended, de­spite re­quests for ad­di­tional se­cu­rity, Clin­ton said Thurs­day what she has said all along — that those re­quests never reached her desk and were han­dled by the se­cu­rity pro­fes­sion­als in the depart­ment. Still, the se­cu­rity breakdown, well doc­u­mented long be­fore Thurs­day, came dur­ing her ten­ure.

Dur­ing the tes­ti­mony, Clin­ton poignantly de­scribed a fog of war on the night of the at­tacks in Libya, in­clud­ing a des­per­ate search for Stevens as the com­pound burned. But there was a fog of mis­in­for­ma­tion in the days af­ter.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials tried to ex­plain what hap­pened with­out fully em­brac­ing the re­al­ity that th­ese were ter­ror­ist at­tacks. Ac­cord­ing to tes­ti­mony Thurs­day, Clin­ton de­scribed the source of, or mo­ti­va­tion for, the at­tacks one way in pub­lic — sug­gest­ing they were caused by an anti-Mus­lim video — and an­other way in pri­vate — say­ing they had noth­ing to do with the film.

The pres­i­dent also re­sisted de­scrib­ing what hap­pened as at­tacks by ter­ror­ists. On the day af­ter the Beng­hazi com­pound was over­run, Obama said no “act of ter­ror” would de­ter the United States, but he didn’t di­rectly la­bel it as a ter­ror­ist at­tack, and for some days af­ter that, when pressed, he con­tin­ued to avoid us­ing those words.

The long-run­ning ar­gu­ment about whether the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pub­lic state­ments in the days af­ter the at­tacks were a de­lib­er­ate ef­fort to de­ceive the pub­lic or were caused by con­fu­sion of in­tel­li­gence wasn’t set­tled by the hear­ings. Opin­ions are well hard­ened on this topic.

Over­all, lit­tle new in­for­ma­tion was re­vealed Thurs­day. There was so lit­tle new that Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the com­mit­tee chair­man, could not im­me­di­ately point to any­thing no­table af­ter the hear­ing ended. Cer­tainly there was noth­ing that is likely to sway the ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans to change their minds, or to al­ter the ba­sic con­clu­sions about what went wrong, as re­vealed by seven pre­vi­ous in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

The day of tes­ti­mony be­gan at 10 a.m. with an un­usu­ally de­fen­sive state­ment by Gowdy, who sought to jus­tify what was about to take place. It ended about 9 p.m., af­ter a fi­nal round of ques­tion­ing from the Repub­li­cans that ap­peared aimed more at pro­vok­ing Clin­ton than in adding some­thing use­ful to the pub­lic record.

Gowdy and oth­ers veered off on tan­gents. One was the in­ter­est in Clin­ton’s re­la­tion­ship with long­time friend and acolyte Sid­ney Blu­men­thal, a loy­al­ist con­tro­ver­sial enough to have been kept out of the Clin­ton State Depart­ment by of­fi­cials in the Obama White House who did not trust him.

Blu­men­thal may be em­blem­atic of the kind of palace in­trigue of old friends who long have pop­u­lated the var­i­ous cir­cles around Hil­lary and Bill Clin­ton, which would ac­com­pany her into the White House if she were to be elected next year. But he was not her prin­ci­pal ad­viser on Libya, as some Repub­li­cans wanted to sug­gest.

The Repub­li­cans com­plained that Blu­men­thal had eas­ier and more di­rect ac­cess to her than did Stevens. That charge did more to re­veal the com­mit­tee’s mis­un­der­stand­ing of how gov­ern­ment agen­cies work and how of­fi­cials within them com­mu­ni­cate than to score points against Clin­ton.

With­out the Beng­hazi com­mit­tee, the ex­is­tence of Clin­ton’s pri­vate e-mail ac­count would not be known. A sep­a­rate in­quiry con­tin­ues to ex­am­ine that ac­count and what the pri­vate server con­tained. That could bring prob­lems for Clin­ton as she con­tin­ues her cam­paign for pres­i­dent.

Clin­ton is far from be­ing on a glide path to the White House. But that path, if she can weather the pri­mary chal­lenge from Sen. Bernie San­ders (I-Vt.), will be made im­mea­sur­ably eas­ier if Repub­li­cans dis­qual­ify them­selves as a party ready and able to gov­ern and one that is of­fer­ing an agenda that a ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans are pre­pared to en­dorse.

There are calls for the Beng­hazi com­mit­tee to be dis­banded. But that misses the larger point about what Thurs­day re­vealed. The hear­ing was one more man­i­fes­ta­tion of a party buf­feted by con­ser­va­tive grass-roots ac­tivists who, af­ter help­ing fuel two big midterm vic­to­ries in 2010 and 2014, are deeply un­happy that Wash­ing­ton has not changed overnight and as sus­pi­cious of their own lead­ers as they are an­gry with Obama and Clin­ton.

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