That does seem to be how things are developing, but for some less than obvious reasons.
The committee’s Republicans found themselves in something of a quandary going into this hearing, which helps explain why committee chair Trey Gowdy spent most of his opening statement justifying the committee’s very existence. If they comported themselves the way members of Congress often do in this kind of hearing — angry, shouted questions, attempts at “gotchas” — they would have ended up looking worse than the person on the receiving end. But if they decided to be polite and substantive, they might avoid a public relations disaster, but their constituents and the right-wing media would be terribly disappointed — feeding the prevailing conservative narrative that their leaders in Congress are wimps who don’t have the courage to really go after Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton the way they should.
But it goes farther than that. It’s important to remember that today’s hearing was a media event, in that it was staged for the purpose of being watched in the media. It wasn’t intended to obtain new information, and it hasn’t yet. And as a media event, its impact is tethered to the underlying truth of the issue in a way that hamstrings Republicans.
If there were some truly damning piece of information that the committee had discovered about Clinton in the course of their investigation, then all the public relations and spin in the world wouldn’t save her from their efforts. For instance, for some time Republicans have been obsessed with a conspiracy theory which has it that Clinton issued a “stand down” order to the military, telling them not to go save the Americans who were in danger in Benghazi. Had that been something other than a bizarre fantasy of the most fevered quarters of the right, Benghazi would have been her undoing.
But that turned out to be fiction, and all the other efforts to find some shocking malfeasance on her part failed. Why did it have such a profound effect when Kevin McCarthy justified the Benghazi committee’s work by saying it had brought down Clinton’s poll numbers? Not because he provided some theretofore unknown piece of information, or because everyone was shocked at the very idea that the committee was political. It had an impact because it supplied a vivid illustration of a fundamental truth. That meant reporters could repeat it, refer to it, and use it to frame their subsequent discussion of the issue.
Let me make an analogy. During the Iran-Contra scandal — in which the Reagan administration sold arms to terrorists, then used the profits to fund an illegal war in Central America — Oliver North, who had been a Reagan administration official, testified in dramatic hearings before the committee investigating the matter. His testimony was judged a triumph at the time, the upright former military officer showing the blowhards in suits how real men act. But the fact was that North was a criminal — he admitted lying to Congress to conceal illegal activities, and was later convicted of that crime and of obstructing justice (his conviction was overturned because of the clever immunity agreement his lawyers struck with Congress). North’s dramatic testimony didn’t save the Reagan administration from accountability for the scandal, and when he ran for Senate in Virginia in 1994, he lost (in a year of a huge Republican sweep). His reputation as a liar who believed he was above the law was a key reason.
North may have gone on to a lucrative career as a right-wing radio and television figure, but when it came to the politics, he lost, no matter how well his Iran-Contra testimony went from a short-term public relations standpoint.
Does that mean that media events don’t make any difference? Not at all. But it does mean that there’s only so much a particular media event can accomplish when the message it sends is fundamentally at odds with the facts. That’s particularly true when there is ample time for the facts to get out, circulate, and influence the rest of the debate and discussion around the issue.
Because we repeat and remember those media moments, we often assume that it was the moment itself that shaped subsequent events — that everyone watched it on television, and at that instant their minds were changed. But that’s seldom if ever how it works.
It’s too early to say exactly how we’ll remember this hearing. Perhaps because it has (so far) lacked any fiery moments that make for good sound bites, it will get discussed only for a day or two and then fade from memory. If this hearing does provide a coda to this controversy, it will surely become a symbol for conservatives of how feckless and ineffectual their congressional leaders are, and a symbol for liberals of Republicans’ obsession with faux scandals.
But either way, over the long run, the facts can’t be escaped.