Benghazi committee reflects a broader breakdown of the Republican Party
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.