Notes From Hillary’s Benghazi Show-Down

In the full sunlight of public attention, one very smart, very well prepared Democrat is more than a match for a roomful of Republicans who have been breathing the stale air inside the conservative news bubble.


Unlike so many of the stories that Republicans use to rally their base — Obama’s plot to persecute conservative political organizations through the IRS, Planned Parenthood’s attempt to make big money through the baby-body-parts market, or the conspiracy of the international scientific community to establish a world socialist government by trumping up a global warming crisis — the attack on the American outpost in Benghazi on September 11, 2012 really happened. Four Americans died, including our ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens.

It was a bad day for America. Not nearly as bad as, say, October 23, 1983, when a Marine barracks in Beirut was bombed, killing 299 American and French servicemen, but a bad day nonetheless.

In hindsight, a lot of people might have done something differently. For instance, Republicans in Congress might have funded the State Department’s security program at the level requested, rather than repeatedly cutting it. Or the State Department might have allocated more of that scarce funding to the Benghazi compound. Or, simplest of all, Ambassador Stevens might have chosen to spend the anniversary of 9-11 in a more secure location.

Hindsight is like that. You can always find something. What’s harder — but far more important — is to find actual lessons for keeping our diplomats safer in the future. That’s the legitimate point of having Congress investigate Benghazi.

As The New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer observed a year-and-a-half ago, a good model for that investigation would have been the one the Democratically controlled House did in 1983: It respected the human tragedy of the Beirut bombing, didn’t use the lives of American servicemen as political poker chips, produced a genuinely bipartisan report, put rumors to rest rather than fanning them, and completed its job in a timely fashion rather than spawning second, third, and fourth House investigations that might have gone on for years. The bombing did not become a major issue to use against President Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign.

As we know, Republicans in Congress decided not to follow that model. Investigating Benghazi has turned into an industry and the investigation never ends. Depending on how you count, the House Select Committee chaired by Rep. Trey Gowdy is maybe the ninth Benghazi investigation. Mayer’s article concluded:

If you compare the costs of the Reagan Administration’s serial security lapses in Beirut to the costs of Benghazi, it’s clear what has really deteriorated in the intervening three decades. It’s not the security of American government personnel working abroad. It’s the behavior of American congressmen at home.

What went wrong with the previous eight investigations — from the Republican point of view — is that they didn’t decisively nail either President Obama or then-Secretary of State Clinton. They didn’t result in grounds for impeachment, or justify fantasies of putting Hillary in jail. They didn’t substantiate rumors of a rescue mission that was ready to roll until either Obama or Clinton pulled the plug and let our people die. They didn’t justify crowd-pleasing lines like Lindsey Graham’s, “Hillary Clinton got away with murder.

For three years now, Republican politicians have been like the guy who tells his wife he’s working to launch a new business that will make them rich, when really he’s been spending his afternoons at the bar. (“Someday soon it’s all going to come together, honey, and then you’ll see.”) They’ve been telling their base that they have the goods on Secretary Clinton. They’ve been winking and nodding at every scurrilous rumor right-wing talk radio can manufacture, implying that when they finally get Hillary under oath, they’ll confront her with the hard evidence and expose her for the whole country to see.

Unfortunately, they missed the lesson that every tale-spinning husband should know: You never actually schedule that demonstration. The fantasy that your ship is coming in can’t survive if you circle a date on the calendar and invite all your friends and relatives down to the docks.

Well, Thursday the circled date on the calendar arrived. There was Hillary Clinton, under oath, on national TV, outnumbered, in a setting designed and controlled by the House Select Committee’s Republican Chairman Trey Gowdy. But for a one-hour lunch break, they kept her answering hostile questions from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

I’m sure the Republicans thought they had a chance. They had ten hours, and they only needed a ten-second lapse. If Clinton stumbled once, if she contradicted herself, if she looked guilty or flustered, if she lost her cool, if she had a Freudian slip … then Fox News would have its lead story and the eventual Republican nominee would have his attack ad. It would all be worth it.

What actually happened is pretty well summed up by the cartoon at the top of the page. (Hillary didn’t really say that line. In Watchmen, Rorschach says it to his fellow prison inmates.) The Republicans didn’t have Hillary where they wanted her, she had them. For 11 hours on national TV on multiple networks, she demonstrated her most presidential qualities: She’s smart, she knows her stuff, she’s unflappable, and she has amazing stamina. Not only did she defuse Benghazi and her email server as issues — if you’ve really got something on her, why couldn’t you produce it? — but she also shut down the argument that she’s too old to be president.

I mean, young Marco Rubio (currently the betting favorite to win the GOP nomination) couldn’t stay presidential for 15 minutes when he gave the Republicans’ State of the Union response in 2013. Josh Marshall had the same thought:

Seriously, can you imagine Marco Rubio in the same chair under the same sort of questioning? Not to mention Donald Trump or – God forbid – the increasingly Chauncey Gardner-esque Ben Carson?

Meanwhile, Chairman Gowdy came out shining with sweat and looking like he’d been through the mill. (I can sympathize. When I saw Clinton this summer inside an oven — I mean, a school gym — in Nashua, I came out soaked and she still looked fresh.)

In short, it was a put-up-or-shut-up moment for the Republicans, and they had nothing to put up.

I would compare Clinton’s testimony to the time in 2010 when President Obama submitted to a Q&A at the retreat of the House Republican Caucus. He ran rings around them that day, and so they never invited him back. Needing to conform to the bizarre fantasies popular among the conservative base is a severe disadvantage when Republicans venture into the view of the general public.

I’ll conclude with some short observations.


You need a comedian to cover the Benghazi hearing properly. Trevor Noah, say.


One way you can tell how an all-day spectacle like this is going is to check which news network cuts away first: that’s the side that thinks it’s losing. Liberal MSNBC stuck with Hillary’s testimony all the way to 9 p.m., while conservative Fox News abandoned ship in mid-afternoon. MSNBC’s Steve Benen sums up

that’s how awful yesterday’s hearing was for Republicans: even conservatives who desperately wanted it to go well for the right had to concede that the gambit was a failure.


As so often happens, right-wingers are annoyed that their people let them down (if you click that link, be sure to read the comments), but won’t consider the idea that there is no Benghazi scandal to ferret out. The clamor for yet another investigation is bound to start soon.

The Republican base views investigations like fortune cookies in a big box. They think that if they open enough of them, they’re bound to find one that says what they want.


I can’t find the link, but I recall TPM’s Josh Marshall complaining a month or two ago that Clinton-haters are so rabid and unfair in their attempts to bring Bill & Hillary down that he ends up rooting for the Clintons, even though he’d rather support more liberal candidates. That effect, combined with Hillary’s strong performance in the first debate, seems to be working.

Recently, Bernie Sanders held a lead in several New Hampshire polls and had even edged ahead in Iowa, but his advantage seems to have evaporated. Two new polls in Iowa show Clinton with a commanding lead. She has a smaller 38%-34% lead in a recent New Hampshire poll.

The articles on those polls attribute her bounce to the debate, but I imagine that the growing focus on the partisan nature of the Benghazi hearings has helped her too. I expect another bounce now that she has sailed through that grueling interrogation on national TV.

You might wonder why Clinton got the debate bounce when Sanders seemed to have all the good lines. I explain it like this: Clinton came into the campaign as the presumed nominee, much as an incumbent president would. In such cases, most voters make a two-part decision: First, a yes-or-no decision on the front-runner — am I satisfied with her or am I looking for an alternative? — and only if the first decision is negative do they proceed to a him-or-her decision between the presumptive nominee and a challenger.

To a lot of Democrats, Clinton looked good enough in the debate to win the first decision. After they said “I’m OK with her as the nominee”, Sanders’ performance really didn’t matter.

If the Benghazi hearings are working in her favor, I’d expect to see the effect most strongly among women, who would be quicker to identify with a woman being picked on unfairly, and especially with a woman who faces down her critics with poise and intelligence. The Quinnipiac poll in Iowa shows Clinton with a 59%-33% advantage with women, overcoming Sanders’ 51%-39% lead among men. We’ll see if that gap grows after the Benghazi hearings.


The Week‘s Paul Waldman sums up the most damning things we’ve discovered about Benghazi:

in May of last year, we learned of a memo that a White House communication official wrote at the time, encouraging staffers not to say Benghazi represented a failure of administration policy. In other words, a guy whose job it is to craft spin crafted some spin. … At another point in the hearing, a Republican congressman spent nearly 15 minutes aggressively interrogating Clinton over whether — brace yourself — her press secretary tried to make her look good to reporters.

The bait-and-switch pattern of Republican rhetoric has been the same from the beginning: They start out talking about four dead Americans and whether Obama/Clinton could have saved them. But when it comes time to detail what the administration might have done wrong, they focus on whether the post-attack talking points contained too much spin.

I want to hear a clear acknowledgment of this obvious fact: Nothing that could have been said on the next Sunday’s talk shows would have retroactively saved Ambassador Stevens. If we’re talking about talking points, we’re not talking about saving lives.


Maybe the most bizarre aspect of Thursday’s hearing was the repeated focus on Hillary’s communication with Sidney Blumenthal. It’s an example of one of those aspects of conservative discourse that has no liberal parallel: demonizing otherwise obscure people and then associating them with anybody else you want to bring down.

That’s what’s going on when conservatives talk about Saul Alinsky, for example, ignoring the fact that he died decades ago and his books go largely unread. (If your local library owns an Alinsky book — it may not — go look for it; I guarantee it won’t be checked out. Most of the Amazon reviews on Rules for Radicals are written by conservatives who think they’ve found the Rosetta Stone of the Obama presidency.) Bill Ayers is another one; if anybody can show me some major decision that turned on Bill Ayers’ opinion, I’d love to see it. Glenn Beck went so far as to put an octogenarian college professor most liberals have never heard of — Frances Fox Piven — at the center of the vast left-wing conspiracy. His web site did at least 24 stories about her in 2011-2012. If not for Beck, I still wouldn’t know who she is.

The dystopian fantasy of a hidden left-wing power structure (that will only be revealed after the Revolution) goes back to the McCarthy Red Scare, or maybe even further to ravings about the Illuminati or the Elders of Zion. Right-wing ideas like that never die.

Here’s the closest comparison I can find: Liberals demonize billionaires who contribute hundreds of millions to conservative causes — the Koch brothers, say — and we’ll connect you to them if you get lots of their money. That’s the best I can do.

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Comments

  • Sher Adair  On October 26, 2015 at 10:20 am

    The whole Benghazi deal reminds me of Stephen Colbert’s classic line: “[Republicans] believe the same thing on Wednesday that they believed on Monday no matter what happened on Tuesday.” 🙂

  • Dan  On October 26, 2015 at 12:54 pm

    I ejoyed the whole article, but quoting the greatest line from the greatest comic book ever, made my day!

    • weeklysift  On October 26, 2015 at 2:07 pm

      A hat tip to Miles Kurland, on whose Facebook page I found it.

  • Abby Hafer  On October 26, 2015 at 4:58 pm

    This is something that I’ve noticed over and over again in my own little world of looking at science denialism. The folks on the right will say that they’re going to do something that would be really damaging, (and go on about it at length) but they don’t actually do it, because they can’t. They can write dozens of pages, hundreds even, about how they’re going to do this thing, but they never do it. For instance, one author wrote about how he was going to apply Information Theory to the human genome, to show that evolution was wrong. Then he didn’t look at the human genome (which was published on 2000, and he might have at least mentioned that!), and he didn’t do Information Theory either. They make all kinds of references to science, but collect no data, without which science doesn’t exist. They make other references to science, but make no predictions, without which science doesn’t exist. It sounds like the same thing was done with the Benghazi investigations. They talked like they had all kinds of damning evidence, but never produced it.

    • weeklysift  On October 28, 2015 at 7:31 am

      David Roberts also made the connection to science in The House Science Committee is worse than the Benghazi Committee. The Science Committee uses the same abusive powers to harass climate scientists, who don’t have Clinton’s resources or name recognition. Imagine being an ordinary college professor and having the government come after you like that, just as a fishing expedition to see if they can find something they can leak to your enemies.

  • Bobby Lee  On October 27, 2015 at 2:40 pm

    Doug, be sure to check out The Week’s essay about “the real Benghazi scandal”. An interesting read: http://theweek.com/articles/584817/why-republicans-keep-missing-giant-benghazi-scandal-right-before-eyes

    • weeklysift  On October 28, 2015 at 7:25 am

      Good article. I’ll mention it next week.

      • Liza  On February 8, 2016 at 4:27 pm

        It’s a relief to find somenoe who can explain things so well

Trackbacks

  • By The Right Men for the Job | The Weekly Sift on October 26, 2015 at 11:09 am

    […] This week’s featured post is “Notes From Hillary’s Benghazi Showdown“. […]

  • […] of view, is that she has endured everything the GOP could throw at her for more than 20 years. (The all-day Benghazi hearing in October was a microcosm of their inability to beat her down.) But what did I think of her as a person and […]

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