Even before the Benghazi Day festivities on Capitol Hill starring Hillary Clinton began yesterday, the expectations for how the performance would play out were already in place. Clinton herself had requested an open, public hearing, one where the cameras would show Republicans aggressively hounding her on specifics regarding what she knew, when she knew it, and how important Sidney Blumenthal was to informing her of it.
Congressional hearings naturally tend to turn the witness into a sympathetic character, and this one was no different. The side for the defense serves up softballs that lead to long-winded statesmanlike answers, while the prosecution looks like a bunch of parsing, small people who are torn between grandstanding and focusing on minor details that seem unimportant in the grand scheme of things. The fact that House Republicans have many members more inclined to view opportunities to question a witness as an invitation to give another speech is never a good factor in such a scenario.
As it turned out, Republicans did slightly better than I expected given the well-known capability of Hillary Clinton to obfuscate at a Pro Bowl level. She danced around many of the Republican lines of questioning with her normal verve and ability to parse words to the nth degree. But Republicans largely resisted their worst tendencies, sticking to fact-checking, and dialing down most of the bluster. And they did catch her on a few things—not in a manner that changes anything about the conversation about Clinton, Benghazi, and her emails, but in ways that highlight Clinton’s questionable approach to the entire Libya situation and her role as Secretary of State.
Three moments in particular stuck out as beneficial for Republicans. First, Republican Jim Jordan highlighted clearly the difference between her public statements and her private communications regarding what happened in Benghazi, illustrating that she was telling people different things privately than she was publicly even within 24 hours of the attack.
Second, Republican Lynn Westmoreland extracted a damaging admission in the context of the discussion of Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal’s outsized role in influencing policy compared to the late Ambassador Chris Stevens’s inability to get responses to his repeated requests for security.
“You got that from Sidney Blumenthal and you say Mr. Blumenthal was a friend of yours and he had your personal email address,” Westmoreland said. “You say Chris Stevens was a friend of yours. Did he have your personal email?”
“I—I do not believe that he had my personal mail,” Clinton responded.
And third, questions from Republican Susan Brooks about a Stevens request email prompted a line from Clinton that will almost certainly end up in a Republican attack ad in the general election. Her decision to tell a joke about Stevens’s suggestion that he pick up additional barricades to secure the facility was a gaffe, if not a particularly juicy one.
So does this hearing change anything or damage Hillary Clinton in any significant way? No. But Clinton did not emerge completely unscathed or helped by the experience. To the degree it is a story, this entire experience helps cement a narrative about Hillary Clinton that is markedly different from the prior Clinton scandals.
Benghazi is not the same as any of the –gates they endured during Bill Clinton’s first go-round. It is different in this way: While all the prior scandals involved the Clintons behaving in devious, underhanded, or ethically dubious ways that stood to benefit them financially or politically, they did not cut against the core appreciation of the Clintons to function as competent public leaders.
In 2008, many Democrats and Republicans believed Hillary Clinton to be a responsible public leader—a firm hand on the wheel, experienced in matters of diplomacy, conflict, and national interest. The 3 a.m. phone call was a question mark with Barack Obama, but not for Hillary Clinton. Question her ideology, sure, but her reputation as someone prepared to lead, experienced in crises, and responsible in the face of significant challenges was firm.
The Benghazi story, in practice, proved this was not the case. The calls for additional security were ignored. The aftermath of the attack saw Clinton heading into spin control, where everything was perceived through the lens of domestic political priorities. And the revelations about her personal email server and eyebrow-raising lack of deference to basic security protocols showed how unserious she was about the serious business of confidential information.
The focus on Benghazi is understandable for Republicans looking to get at what really went on in the context of the attack, in the questionably motivated advice of Sidney Blumenthal, and in understanding to what degree Clinton is obfuscating about the truth of that event. Every committee full of politicians is politically motivated. But Republicans only occasionally touched on the broader weakness, and Clinton’s real political vulnerability, in the context of the hearing: that is, her overall record at the State Department.
Try to name any meaningful thing Hillary Clinton accomplished in her role as Secretary of State. The small things she did accomplish have almost universally turned out badly. Around the globe, many of the policy disasters and accumulating failures we are coping with now can be traced back to her tenure in office. In his time at the State Department, John Kerry has spent much of his time dealing with the ramifications of Hillary’s poor decisions regarding America’s allies and our foes. And while Clinton had the good sense to leave before everything went absolutely south, she bears major responsibility for the seeds that were planted that are now bearing such bitter fruit.
So where does Hillary Clinton stand after Benghazi Day? She remains the frontrunner for the White House, and a very flawed candidate attempting to replace a two-term president in her own party. Sometimes such candidates win, like George H.W. Bush—and sometimes they lose, like Al Gore. Usually the difference in such a case is the quality of the other candidate. Just as was true before the hearing began and is true now, in this case, that candidate—not any potential legal ramifications for Hillary Clinton’s terrible decisions—is likely to be the deciding factor.