Bill Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives on two charges – one of perjury and one of obstruction of justice – on December 19, 1998, and was acquitted of those charges by the Senate on February 12, 1999. Most of the nation found this a bit absurd. This was related to a personal sexual matter. Yes, he had tried to cover up the fact that he actually had been doing the dirty with young Monica, but this had nothing to do with his running the country. Things were fine – a booming economy, a federal surplus, and no wars. What was the problem? The Republicans came off as sanctimonious prigs, but that was just an overlay of something else – underneath was a crude political nastiness to destroy the other side by any means possible, even if somewhat irrelevant, rather than work with them. That’s how they did business.
America was not impressed. This was a private matter and the personal humiliation of your opponents is not policy. That’s not governance. How would they run things? America began to realize they didn’t really think about such things. They wanted to remove Bill Clinton from office. That was enough. And personal humiliation would work – but it didn’t. Bill Clinton is more popular than ever now.
Newt Gingrich isn’t. He was speaker of the House at the time and got the ball rolling, but a reprimand from the House for some odd ethics violations led to his resignation from the speakership on November 6, 1998, followed by his outright resignation from the House on January 3, 1999 – the master of nasty politics was gone. He was to be followed by Bob Livingston – he had been demanding Clinton be impeached for more than a year – but Livingston was suddenly forced to acknowledge that he had had his own hot and heavy affair and withdrew his candidacy. He challenged Bill Clinton to resign as well. Clinton smiled. That left the last man standing – Dennis Hastert – the former high school wrestling coach from the suburbs of Chicago. He lasted as speaker until 2006, but of course now he’s about to plead guilty to serious bank fraud. He moved a lot of money around to pay off former students about what really went on in those locker rooms long ago. He seems to have liked young boys. It happens.
Personal humiliation cuts both ways, but at one time, a heavily Republican House tried to eliminate their very popular opposition, named Clinton, through quite public humiliation, at a time that they couldn’t even find a speaker to organize the effort – and it backfired. They came off looking like jerks.
Now they know better. No, wait, they don’t know better:
Republicans grilled former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton through nearly 11 hours Thursday in a long-awaited hearing of the House Benghazi committee that produced little if any new information, but ample partisan argument.
The hearing provided an extraordinary spectacle, starting in the morning and stretching well into the night, far longer than such sessions typically last even with multiple witnesses.
Through the lengthy session, Clinton maintained a relentlessly calm and smiling demeanor, showing few visible signs of fatigue other than a hoarse throat that began to develop in the 10th hour.
That may be what she wanted. America got to see a woman, a grandmother no less, sit alone facing a panel of angry men who knew they had nothing, and stay calm as they badgered her. She had been a senator. She had been secretary of state. They were essentially newbies. The Republicans did have a few women on the panel, but what everyone saw was a bunch of younger angry white men badgering a successful older woman for eleven hours straight.
This looked bad, and she made them look bad from the start:
From her opening statement on, she sought to seize a rhetorical high ground above the partisan fray, reminding members of the panel that after attacks on diplomatic facilities during the administrations of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in which hundreds of Americans were killed, members of both parties “rose above politics” to examine what had gone wrong.
In investigating the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks in the Libyan city of Benghazi, “Congress has to be our partner as it has been after previous tragedies,” Clinton said.
“We need leadership at home to match our leadership abroad,” she said in her opening statement, “leadership that puts national security ahead of ideology.”
And there was context:
Clinton’s appearance was preceded by several weeks of bad publicity for the committee, starting when House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) said in a television interview that the panel had succeeded in driving down Clinton’s poll ratings. Democrats, who had long charged the committee with partisanship, have relentlessly repeated McCarthy’s words.
As a result, panel Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) began the hearing on defense, using his opening statement to justify the panel’s existence.
Although seven previous congressional investigations had examined the Benghazi attacks, “those previous investigations were not thorough,” Gowdy said. The current panel was seeking “the truth,” he declared.
That was a joke:
If one of Clinton’s goals was to convey an image of being more composed and serious than her inquisitors, members of the committee often appeared to help, engaging in one high-decibel shouting match and numerous partisan jabs. The committee’s seven Republicans and five Democrats squabbled over the cost to taxpayers of the multiple investigations, the conduct of the State Department in responding to those inquiries, even the length of the hearing, itself.
“We’ve been here for 9 1/2 hours, and the questions are increasingly badgering … increasingly vicious,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said as the evening wore on and Republican members turned from questions about the attack to inquiries about Clinton’s use of a private server for her emails while she headed the State Department.
“They simply wish to wear you down.”
No kidding. The whole thing was a bust:
Gowdy conceded after the hearing that Clinton’s lengthy testimony had broken little new ground.
“I don’t know that she testified much differently today than when she previously testified,” he said.
And she was the one who wore them down:
The hearing began on a testy note as Gowdy and the senior Democrat on the panel, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, sparred over whether the panel’s work was merely repeating what other investigations had done.
A few hours later, the two men, joined by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), escalated their conflict, engaging in an angry procedural fight over whether to release the transcript of the committee’s interrogation of Sidney Blumenthal, a longtime friend of Clinton’s and an aide to her husband.
As Clinton watched, smiling, Cummings – shouting across the committee dais – accused Gowdy of selectively releasing Blumenthal’s emails in order to make false allegations. Gowdy accused the Democrats of attempting to disrupt the committee’s proceedings, then vowed to investigate Clinton’s old friend further.
“If you think you’ve heard about Sidney Blumenthal so far, wait until the next round,” he said before stalking out of the committee room for a lunchtime recess.
When the committee reconvened, the members voted 7 to 5, along party lines, not to release the transcript.
They ended up screaming that she spent more time talking with Sidney Blumenthal than her ambassadors. What was in the transcripts didn’t matter. Where are the emails to and from Benghazi? She gently reminded them that the state department uses encrypted cables to conduct its business. Oh.
And there was this:
Some of the most personal questioning came from Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who suggested that in the days after the attack, Clinton had tried to hide information about the motivation of the attackers in order to influence the 2012 election.
“It’s just 56 days before an election” and “you can’t be square with the American people,” Jordan said. Clinton and other Obama administration officials had downplayed the terrorist nature of the attack “because Libya was supposed to be this great success story,” Jordan said.
“Americans can live with the fact that good people sometimes give their lives for this country,” he said, but not “when their government’s not square with them.”
With a rare note of irritation entering her voice, Clinton shot back that “the insinuations that you are making do a disservice” to government officials who were trying to do “the best we could with the information we had.”
The GOP allegation that she had failed to take security requests seriously is “a very personally painful accusation,” she said a few minutes later. “It has been rejected and disproven by nonpartisan and dispassionate investigators.”
“I’ve lost more sleep than all of you put together,” she told the panel members.
That was as serious as it got. The rest was nonsense – the same answers to questions already asked in the seven previous investigations and all their hearings – and Josh Marshall saw what was happening:
Listening to the questions from Republicans questioning Hillary Clinton, it is hard not to step back and ask what it is they’re even trying to prove or what their point is. The lines of questions are disjointed and they’re pressing points she either freely concedes (yes, it was terrible and she’s ultimately responsible) or the point of which isn’t even clear (why did Sid Blumenthal send you so many emails?). It’s not going well for the committee at all. What’s most revealing about the testimony so far is that they definitely get that: they know it’s going badly for them. And that’s led to a rather churlish and defensive tone to the whole proceeding that’s further deflated any sense that this is more than a clown show where the clowns are struggling.
Kevin McCarthy should have never said the whole point of this was to force Hillary Clinton out of the presidential race:
As I’ve now said several times, it’s a world of difference that this happening post-McCarthy and not pre-McCarthy. The questions wouldn’t necessarily have been different. The arguments from the GOP would not have been any better. But now the assumption from the press is that Hillary is on the upswing (both in her poll numbers and on the ‘Benghazi’ question) and the committee members are on the defensive. At least to a degree, she’s been vindicated in this whole drama and the committee has been discredited.
If that weren’t the case, whatever the fairness or the logic of the questions, the press would have seen the whole drama through the prism of Hillary’s on-going undoing. Whether it was fair or made sense would be secondary.
But with a different governing narrative the whole things looks different. There’s a very different sense of who is winning and losing and that sense has taken root with Hillary and the committee Republicans themselves, which just magnifies the effect.
Because of all this, Republican committee members just seemed pissed because this was supposed to be awesome – after all, a committee designed to bring down Hillary and circulate all those numskull conspiracy theories about Chris Stevens wearing a chest cam and how President Obama was watching everything happening live on his iPhone. Hillary’s yet to get at all flustered and has even had the opportunity to gently explain to Republican members how the State Department works. She looks poised; they’re radiating spittle.
Marshall sees her making them regret this is even happening. That was halfway through. It didn’t get better for them, and Chris Cillizza sums it up:
The newslessness of the hearing was a triumph for Clinton. There was no negative sound bite from her. No acknowledgement of error. No moment of real weakness or confusion about the events that unfolded on Sept. 11, 2012. The hearing was, in a word, boring. And that’s exactly what Clinton wanted.
The New York Times’ Gail Collins puts it another way:
The first step on the road to national sanity is to acknowledge that our leaders all want to keep the people safe. There is absolutely no reason to worry on that point. But good intentions don’t always lead to safe results, and the second step is to figure out what went wrong in a calm and even-handed manner.
The Benghazi committee went into its investigation with a promise to be fair. “There are certain things in our culture that have to transcend politics, and I don’t mean to sound naïve, but the murder of four fellow Americans and an attack on a facility that is emblematic of our country should transcend politics,” said the committee chair, Trey Gowdy.
The very fact that Gowdy thought he might be sounding naïve should have been a warning.
That was before the House majority leader bragged how well the committee had done in bringing down Clinton’s poll numbers. Before Gowdy criticized Clinton for forwarding an email containing the name of a CIA source to her aide, and in the process accidentally made the name public himself.
This was deeply unserious:
How do you know if politicians are transcending their parties when they’re investigating these painful and sensitive matters? Well, do they seem interested in important but unsexy issues like the State Department security chain of command? Or are they flinging themselves in front of the cameras, claiming that the terrible error which was Benghazi is like the criminal conspiracy which was Watergate.
This was a disaster for Republicans. It was like that impeachment of a Clinton seventeen years ago, without the sex. This was the preemptive impeachment of another Clinton, seventeen years later, and it went just as well. It made the Republicans look like jerks, and they know it. Sahil Kapur at Bloomberg Business notes that the conservative reviews are in:
Among House Republicans, there were no high-fives: A half-dozen lawmakers surveyed offered a muted response when asked about the hearing on Thursday afternoon. Many conservative commentators were unimpressed, if not angry with the proceedings.
“So a hearing billed as an epic, High Noon-style confrontation – granted, the hype came from the media, not Republican committee members themselves – instead turned out to be a somewhat interesting look at a few limited aspects of the Benghazi affair,” wrote Byron York at the Washington Examiner. “In other words, no big deal. And that is very, very good news for Hillary Clinton.”
Conservative radio host Erick Erickson described the hearings as “a waste of time because everything about it is politicized and nothing is going to happen.”
“There will be no scalp collection,” he wrote in a blog post, adding: “It was all a political spectacle. God bless Trey Gowdy for trying to learn the facts and understand what happened. But the rest of it was just a carnival road show of back bench congress-critters playing to the cameras and Hillary Clinton working hard to play persecuted victim.”
Erickson lamented that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s recent comments on Fox News bragging about the Benghazi committee’s deleterious effect on Clinton’s poll numbers “discredited this episode before it began in the minds of the press.” McCarthy’s remarks were followed by a second Republican congressman, New York’s Richard Hanna, saying the panel was created “to go after people and an individual, Hillary Clinton.” Meanwhile, a former Benghazi committee staffer says he’s preparing to sue the panel for allegedly being fired because he didn’t want to target Clinton.
Days before the hearing, Republican Chairman Trey Gowdy told Politico that “these have been among the worst weeks of my life” and went on CBS to instruct his colleagues to “shut up” about the work of the committee, insisting it was about fact-finding and not politics. The hearing didn’t provide much to boost his outlook.
Another sign of the way political tides where turning: The Fox News Channel, which has taken a special interest in the issue of Benghazi in recent years, cut away from the hearing midway through while other networks continued to carry it live.
Matthew Yglesias adds this:
Hillary Clinton is a top-tier politician who’s been the subject of nearly constant national media scrutiny for more than 20 years. She also happens to have worked at the House Judiciary Committee during the most famous and most influential congressional investigation into executive branch misconduct of all time. The Benghazi committee, by contrast, is led by a guy who can’t get a proper haircut and composed largely of random backbench Republicans, most of whom run in districts that aren’t remotely competitive.
Consequently, it’s not so surprising that she ended up mopping the floor with her antagonists – a group that went in with no clear plan of what they were hoping to accomplish and little substantive understanding of any of the relevant policy issues.
Well, they must have figured that the little woman needed some mansplaining about how the world really works. That was a mistake. She was the one who clearly knew how the world really works. Mansplaining is always a bad idea, and Republicans already have enough problems with women. This just made things much worse.
They should have known better. It was clear that everyone was onto them, given that new CNN poll:
The vast majority of the American public believes that the Republican-led House Select Committee on Benghazi is politically motivated, according to a CNN/ORC poll released Thursday morning.
The poll, which came out the day that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before the committee about her involvement in the 2012 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, found that a whopping 72 percent of Americans think the panel’s primary purpose is political gain. In contrast, 23 percent said the investigation was objective.
A surprising number of Republicans – 49 percent – acknowledged that the panel is intent on scoring political points against Clinton, the current frontrunner in the Democratic presidential race, with 85 percent of Democrats and 75 percent of independents agreeing.
Everyone knew what was going on here, just as everyone knew what was going on with the impeachment of her husband seventeen years earlier – the usual crude political nastiness to destroy the other side by any means possible, even if somewhat irrelevant, rather than work with them. That’s how they did business then. That’s how they do business now, through quite public humiliation, at a time that they can’t even find a speaker to organize the effort – and it backfired again. They came off looking like jerks. Even they know it.
Now consider what just happened. This wasn’t an impeachment. They just got her elected president.