DES MOINES — Throughout her political career, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s greatest curse — the reaction she provokes in her adversaries — has also been her salvation.
That was proved once again during her 11-hour inquisition by the House Select Committee on Benghazi, a Republican-engineered train wreck from which she emerged without a scratch.
Pale, hoarse and weary as she was, the former secretary of state left the hearing room looking stronger than she has at any point since she announced her second campaign for president.
As with everything else about Clinton, however, there is a corollary.
When Clinton has stumbled, it usually has been over her own feet and at moments when the tide has seemed to be going her way. Those are the times when her impulses toward insularity and guardedness overwhelm her more appealing traits of discipline and toughness.
“She generally has been better with her back to the wall than when she is comfortably ahead,” said David Axelrod, who was Barack Obama’s chief political strategist for both of his presidential campaigns, including his hard-fought battle with Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary race.
The challenge for Clinton now, Axelrod said, “is to keep that rigor and not settle back into the posture of cautious, calculating front-runner.”
Whether she can do that may begin to become clear here in Des Moines on Saturday night, at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, an event known as an early test of candidates’ messages and organization.
In 2007, the dinner was one of the first signals of the difficulties ahead for Clinton.
She had gone into it as the solid front-runner. But the supporters who showed up for the upstart Obama campaign revealed that he was energizing a younger and more diverse electorate than Clinton was; his speech there encapsulated the political moment — and the thirst for change that came to define the presidential election that followed.
This year, Clinton will be looking over her shoulder at Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a self-described democratic socialist who has been drawing crowds across the country that number in the tens of thousands with his populist, anti-establishment speeches.
Clinton will also come to the Hy-Vee Hall stage fresh from two triumphs: the first Democratic debate, on Oct. 13, which she dominated, and her marathon day of grilling on Capitol Hill. She is showing new strength in the polls against Sanders, both nationally and in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
The Benghazi committee’s stated purpose was to get to the bottom of a matter that had been the subject of seven previous investigations: the September 2012 terrorist attacks in Libya that cost the lives of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
But earlier this year, the panel uncovered something that none of the others had — the fact that while Clinton was secretary of state, she decided to use a private e-mail account and server, rather than following protocol and using a government one.
Over the summer, Clinton’s legalistic and shifting explanations for that decision revived doubts about her character and honesty. Her use of a private system also triggered an investigation by the FBI, which continues and is likely to hang over her campaign for many months to come.
Her approval rating swooned, and she was forced, reluctantly and belatedly, to acknowledge that using a private system was the wrong thing to do. She also began engaging in less-scripted settings, including a series of national media interviews.
Meanwhile, the committee’s avowals of lofty purpose were undercut by statements from House Republicans, including Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), that suggested its real goal was to destroy Clinton’s candidacy.
Nor did the proceeding Thursday do much to dispel that idea. At times during the hearing, Republican lawmakers seemed more interested in Clinton’s correspondence with longtime confidant Sidney Blumenthal than in the events surrounding the Benghazi attacks. At others, Clinton sat silently with her face planted on her palm, a bystander to the panel’s partisan bickering.
As the hours passed, only a few slivers of new information came to light.
“Simply as a matter of political theater, over the course of many hours of testimony, Clinton performed brilliantly. She assumed a calm, deliberate demeanor with her opening statement and never surrendered it,” conservative columnist John Podhoretz wrote in the New York Post. “The more she sounded like a policy wonk, the less she seemed like what the Republicans clearly wanted her to seem like: a cynical political animal.”
From Clinton’s perspective, it was part of a familiar pattern.
“Let’s just take a minute here and point out that this committee is basically an arm of the Republican National Committee,” she said during the Oct. 13 debate. “It is a partisan vehicle, as admitted by the House Republican majority leader, Mr. McCarthy, to drive down my poll numbers. Big surprise. And that’s what they have attempted to do.”
The charge was an echo of the former first lady’s contention, shortly after scandal broke over husband Bill Clinton’s affair with a White House intern, that a “vast right-wing conspiracy” was at work.
That comment was widely mocked. But as Republicans were pushing toward Bill Clinton’s impeachment, the electorate decided they had indeed overreached — and punished them for it in the 1998 midterm elections.
Meanwhile, public sympathy for Hillary Clinton soared, setting the stage for the political career that she would embark upon in 2000 with a run for the Senate.
“It has long been a cliche that the Clintons are blessed by their enemies,” said longtime Clinton strategist Paul Begala, who is now working for the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA Action. “The good news is the Clinton-haters, the conspiracy theorists, the obsessives and the whack jobs are zero for life in their zeal to destroy the Clintons.”
The question for Hillary Clinton now, however, is whether she can keep from doing to herself what her political enemies have failed to do.