Saturday, May 10, 2014

Coming soon: ‘Benghazi the Opera’ (the Sequel)

THANKS TO the GOP’s ruthless political efficiency, we’re getting a preview of two campaign strategies at once right now. With the loss of the Affordable Care Act as a stigmatizing weapon against the Democrats, and with no breakout shining stars to cultivate for 2016, the Republican playbook for the midterms and the presidential election will be filled with one word written in rhetorical highlighter: “Benghazi.”

For many months, defeating Obamacare was the hill Republicans were ready to die on. The Republicans tried to make their opposition personal, using a strategy that was more ad hominem than it should have been, targeting the president himself by way of condemning the closest thing we have to universal health care. But the GOP never found the traction necessary to successfully make that an all-in, overarching election issue (despite Obamacare itself still not having fully gained the critical mass that it needs).

What’s a party in the wilderness to do? As they’ve done before, the Republican leadership will try to reanimate the corpse of the non-scandal we know as “Benghazi.” On Thursday the Republican-led House passed a bill (in a thoroughly party-line vote) to convene a select committee for yet another investigation of the just-as-thoroughly investigated terrorist attacks on Americans in September 2012. The word goes forth among the faithful: The road to the White House will, at least briefly, require a legislative side trip to a port city on the Libyan coast.

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A lot’s being made of the composition of the proposed House Benghazi panel: seven Republicans and five Democrats — an imbalance that guarantees gridlock before the first gavel comes down. To lead the committee, House Speaker John Boehner tapped South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, a second-term conservative and a rhetorical pitbull on the floor of the House.

The obvious political overtones have led House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to consider boycotting the panel, Politico reported Wednesday. “She was backed by South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the assistant Democratic leader, and Rep. Steve Israel, the New York Democrat who chairs the party’s campaign arm.”

For the last 18 months, the name of the Libyan city has been appropriated as a meme of the howling class of the Republican base and the chattering class of the party’s intelligentsia. It’s the latest attempt to call Clinton’s judgment and her leadership style into question, and to push back against the growing perception that, if she runs in 2016, Hillary Clinton would be the presidential frontrunner with a capital F.

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CLINTON WAS secretary of state when Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, Foreign Service Information Officer Sean Smith, and CIA contractors and former Navy SEALS Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were killed on Sept. 11, 2012, in an attack at the American diplomatic mission by still-unknown assailants. Clinton herself appeared at a January 2013 Senate hearing on the Benghazi attacks — one of the 13 hearings and 50 congressional briefings conducted into the matter.

There are risks for Democrats as the hearing unfold. If they follow Pelosi’s lead and walk away from the hearings altogether, the Democrats would be conceding the field to the Republicans, who’d no doubt run riot over the proceedings (which they’re likely to try to do anyway).

And frankly, it’d send the wrong signal to Democrats looking for a principled resistance to Republican bullying — not exactly what the Democratic leadership wants to communicate to an electorate already expected to be a no-show in November.

But for Republicans desperate for political advantage in the near term, and with no one even close to waiting in the wings as a viable prospect for 2016, pursuit of this backward-looking strategy is their only option right now, and for as long as they can string it out. Benghazi is a new hill to die on, and Steve Schmidt, at least, partly understands the downside in doing it.

The veteran political analyst and McCain ’08 seer told MSNBC this week: “The danger for Republicans here — and this is true of all oversight and investigative committees — is that there is a thin line between a select committee and a kangaroo court. The reality is, it’s usually the overreach that results from investigations like this that hurts the people doing the investigating ... the Republicans have a thin line to walk here.”

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But that’s not entirely right. Fact is, the Republicans crossed that thin line a while back. A new select committee would be an extension of the overreach on Benghazi that the Republican House has all but institutionalized for the last 18 months, under California Rep. Darrell Issa. The committee itself would be the overreach Schmidt warns about, more of what White House press secretary Jay Carney recently called “a conspiracy theory without a conspiracy.”

This new old Republican idée fixe is problematic in ways that dangerously dovetail with the two elections to come. The first is the known unknown of what the Benghazi attacks mean to a midterm electorate. With the economy sputtering back to life, and a number of social and economic issues simmering in various legislatures, midterm voters will be more focused on state and local races — and more predisposed to candidates that focus on state and local concerns.

Given the cratering opinion polls for Congress, those voters aren’t likely to shift their attention to another blatantly political hearing to re-litigate a largely settled matter. There’s simply too much to deal with that’s right in front of them.

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WHICH LEADS to the second problem, the one reserved for 2016. Republicans have already hinted that they’ll do everything they can to prolong the committee hearings, to drag the thing out indefinitely (“Benghazi,” Now Playing Again at the Congressional Opera House! Extended Run!). If they do, they run the risk, in a presidential election year, of exhausting the patience of voters eager for new policy prescriptions and fresh thinking from a party that needs both, and badly.

And they’ll be locking themselves into the very image of rear-view obstructionism they need to overcome to win. A presidential election is, by definition, a referendum on the future. It will be hard as hell for the House Republicans to build credibility as a party of the future while maintaining the obsession with the past that the Benghazi inquiry represents. There’s a price to be paid for driving with your eyes locked on the rear-view mirror.

The third problem for the GOP: The longer it plays out, the more a new Benghazi inquiry will likely reveal the standing schism between moderates and the last of the Tea Party dead-enders — a Republican Party divided with itself. Russell Berman of The Hill reported that Democrats will play on “intraparty tensions in the GOP, arguing that Boehner’s [selection of Gowdy] is a slap at [Issa], the Oversight Committee chairman who has courted controversy in his probe of the Benghazi attack. A Democratic House aide also pointed out that Boehner made the move at a time when he has feuded with conservatives over immigration, and amid positive reports on the job market and the president’s healthcare law.”

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None of this will matter to the Republican leadership in Congress. They can’t help themselves. This partisanship is the itch that must be scratched. But some in the GOP have sent an early warning already.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who’s up for re-election this year, said as much Sunday on CBS's “Face the Nation.” “If we're playing politics with Benghazi, we'll get burned,” Graham said, and he should know. The senator suffered third-degree political embarrassment last year after he signed on — body and soul — to a CBS “60 Minutes” report that largely (and erroneously) laid the blame for the Benghazi assault on the al-Qaeda network.

The panel almost certainly won’t release its report for tree-ring time to come. Texas Republican Mike Conaway told Bloomberg News that “I’d be stunned” if the investigation ends any time this year.

If that’s true, we can thank the GOP for its ruthless thoroughness in Getting to the Bottom of the issue, even if it just means getting to the bottom of a barrel we’ve been to the bottom of before. The House panel on Benghazi may take until some time in 2015 to decide if there is substance to their suspicions — if there’s any there there. Between now and then, whenever “then” is, the American public may well have decided the same thing about the Republican Party.

Until then ... take your seats. The House lights are going down. The show is about to begin. Again.

Image credits: Benghazi inferno: via Mother Jones. Stevens: public domain. Clinton: via You Tube. Issa: ABC News. Graham: CBS News. 

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