Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton’s appearance before the House Benghazi committee provided one more example of the breakdown of a Republican Party torn by factionalism and heavily influenced by a cadre of supporters who are far less interested in governing than in expressing its anger.
By the time the committee ended 11 hours of questioning of the Democratic presidential front-runner, the long day of testimony had come to symbolize seven years of Republican frustration with the administration of President Obama — and the fears within the party that it could face another four or eight years of Democratic occupation of the White House.
This combustible mix already had brought disorder to the search for a successor to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and has turned the Republican race for the White House on its head. The Republicans are now at a moment where events are forcing them to rethink and regroup, but to what end?
What happens in the fight for the Republican presidential nomination is the most important test of where the party may be heading. Currently, the GOP primary electorate appears enamored with two candidates — Donald Trump and Ben Carson — with no experience in elective office and no clear principles or guidelines for how they would govern.
Behind them are politicians with current or past elective experience, some of whom have governed as chief executives in their states. But given the current mood of the Republican primary electorate, many of them are playing to the angry crowds in the GOP bleachers, feeding rather than modulating the anger that is out there.
The presidential contest now mirrors the unrest that long has left the House Republicans a largely dysfunctional family. The fact that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) appears likely to become the next House speaker is one potentially positive sign of a restoration. But whether he can tame the rebellious conservatives in his conference is far from clear.
The party’s ills seemed to crystallize in the hearing room on Thursday in ways that likely worry many Republicans. All the denials in advance that damaging Clinton was not the main goal of the committee were overwhelmed by the tone, tenor and subject matter of much of the questioning by the Republican majority.
In the short run at least, the committee likely did more to help, rather than hinder, Clinton in her bid to win the White House a year from now. In reality, the day’s events did more to shine a spotlight on a damaged congressional oversight process, a committee without a clear objective and a party determined to strike back at the policies and priorities of the Obama administration.
Clinton’s record as Obama’s secretary of state is certainly fair game in the general election, and she will have to defend it. She was a principal advocate of a Libya policy that has left that country in chaos. As secretary of state at the time of the 2012 Benghazi attacks, she bears some responsibility for what happened there.
On the matter of why the Benghazi diplomatic outpost was so poorly defended, despite requests for additional security, she said Thursday what she has said all along — that those requests never reached her desk. Still, the security breakdown, well documented long before Thursday, came during her tenure.
During the testimony, Clinton described a fog of war on the night of the attacks in Libya, including a desperate search for U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. But there was a fog of misinformation in the days after, as administration officials tried to explain what happened without fully embracing the reality that this was a terrorist attack.
According to testimony on Thursday, she appeared to have described the source of or motivation for the attack one way in public and another way in private. On the day after the attacks, Obama said no “act of terror” would deter the United States. For some days after that, he resisted labeling what happened in Benghazi as a terrorist attack.
But there was little new information revealed Thursday, so little that Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the committee chairman, could not immediately point to anything notable after the day ended. Certainly there was nothing likely to sway the majority of Americans or change the basic story of what happened as revealed by a series of previous investigations.
The day of testimony began at 10 a.m. with an unusually defensive statement by Gowdy, who sought to justify what was about to take place. It ended about 9 p.m., after a final round of questioning from the Republicans that appeared aimed more at provoking Clinton than in adding something useful to the public record about a tragedy that killed four Americans, including Stevens.
Gowdy and others veered off on tangents. One was the interest in Clinton’s relationship with longtime friend and acolyte Sidney Blumenthal, a loyalist controversial enough to have been kept out of the Clinton State Department by officials in the Obama White House who did not trust him.
Blumenthal may be emblematic of the kind of palace intrigue and old friends who long have populated the various circles around Hillary and Bill Clinton that would accompany her into the White House, if she were elected next year. But he was not her principal adviser on Libya, as some Republicans wanted to suggest.
The Republicans complained that Blumenthal seemed to have had more direct access to her than did Stevens. That charge did more to show the committee’s misunderstanding of how government agencies work and how officials communicate than anything else.
Without the Benghazi committee, the existence of Clinton’s private e-mail account would not be known. A separate inquiry continues to examine that account and what the private server contained. That could bring problems for Clinton as she continues her campaign for president. She is far from on a glide path to the White House.
But that path, if she can weather the primary challenge from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), will be made immeasurably easier if Republicans disqualify themselves as a party ready and able to govern and offering an agenda that a majority of Americans are prepared to endorse.
There are calls for the Benghazi committee to be disbanded. But that misses the larger point about what Thursday revealed. The hearing was one more manifestation of a party buffeted by conservatives who, after helping fuel two big midterm victories, are deeply unhappy that Washington has not changed overnight and as suspicious of their own leaders as they are angry with Obama and Clinton.