House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy commented on Fox News on the Select Committee on Benghazi, suggesting its investigation brought Hillary Clinton's poll numbers down. Washington Post reporter Elise Viebeck explains why McCarthy's comment ended up as a win for Clinton. (Alice Li/The Washington Post)

Sean Hannity was pushing hard, asking House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to name some promises his Republicans had actually delivered on. He scoffed when McCarthy said the party would start undoing the Affordable Care Act -- "you have the power of the purse!" He talked over McCarthy when the leader and candidate for Speaker of the House suggested that the party did not need to cut funds for President Obama's "amnesty," because courts had taken care of it. Only halfway into the interview did McCarthy finally catch a break.

"Everybody though Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?" McCarthy asked. "But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she's untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened, had we not fought."

"I give you credit for that," said Hannity. "I'll give you credit where credit is due."

The interview ran late Tuesday night, giving Hillary Clinton's campaign and allies time to prepare a counterattack. They -- and Democrats, generally -- had always described the May 2014 creation of the Select Committee on Benghazi as a political fishing expedition. All of a sudden, McCarthy was saying so, just to mollify a partisan conservative TV host. Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon quickly argued as much on Twitter.

"The political hatchet job at taxpayer expense that is the current Benghazi investigation in the House has been officially exposed by who else - the future Speaker of the House," said Brad Woodhouse, president of the pro-Clinton rapid response group Correct the Record. "We have been saying for years that Republicans were exploiting the deaths of four Americans for political gain. Kevin McCarthy just admitted it. Disgraceful."

McCarthy's answer was indeed at odds with 16 months of Republican talking points on the investigation, led by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.). Whenever he was asked if the committee was political, outgoing Speaker of the House John Boehner typically expressed disgust at the mere suggestion. Democrats were talking politics while lifetime prosecutor Trey Gowdy was talking about events that led to the murders of four Americans.

"This is all about getting to the truth," Boehner said in May 2014. "This is not going to be a sideshow, this is not going to be a circus. This is going to be a serious investigation."

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The aftermath of Boehner's decision to retire has done damage to that argument. Yesterday, Capitol Hill rumbled with talk that Gowdy would run to replace McCarthy as majority leader, a position the third-term congressman would not have been in without the goodwill engendered by the Benghazi investigation. After hours of confusion -- even after Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) insisted that there'd be a way for Gowdy to lead both the investigation and the House GOP -- the South Carolinian insisted at a closed-door meeting that he wasn't in the leadership hunt, and had to focus on Benghazi.

And on the right, Gowdy's committee isn't even given full credit for the most damaging revelations about Clinton. Judicial Watch, the watchdog group that obtained Benghazi-era emails about White House talking points -- Boehner's stated justification for creating the committee -- greeted the speaker's retirement by saying he'd largely whiffed.

"We’ve heard from many members of the House who are embarrassed that its committees and oversight have become a joke under Speaker Boehner," said Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton last week. "Judicial Watch has had more success investigating the IRS, Benghazi, and Clinton email scandals than any House committee under Boehner’s direction."

In a follow-up interview, Fitton told the Washington Post that the Benghazi select committee was about as unproductive as any creation of Boehner could be expected to be. "Committees are a way for leadership to allow members to leverage their offices to raise money and stay in office," he said. "Oversight, accountability, fiduciary responsibility to their taxpayers -- it's often secondary."

Fitton is hardly the only conservative who's been unimpressed by the House GOP majority. At this past weekend's Values Voter Summit, radio host and author Mark Levin told social conservatives that the party had really achieved nothing in power, and that the prospects for change were not any better after the 2014 defeat of McCarthy's predecessor Eric Cantor. McCarthy, said Levin, would be "Eric Cantor minus 10 IQ points."

UPDATE: Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member of the Select Committee on Benghazi, said in a statement that "this stunning concession from Rep. McCarthy reveals the truth that Republicans never dared admit in public: the core Republican goal in establishing the Benghazi Committee was always to damage Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and never to conduct an even-handed search for the facts."

"It is shameful that Republicans have used this tragedy and the deaths of our fellow Americans for political gain," Cummings continued, hinting at the ethical argument Democrats will make --with fresh grist -- against the majority. "Republicans have blatantly abused their authority in Congress by spending more than $4.5 million in taxpayer funds to pay for a political campaign against Hillary Clinton.”