Televised Benghazi Hearings: Did They Backfire and Become an Ad for Hillary Clinton?

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All day yesterday, various news stories ebbed and flowed as they do, but, one story kept going like the Energizer Bunny. It was the most recent rounds of the Benghazi hearings, televised all day, starring a group of congressional Republicans led by Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, along with former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was on the “hot seat” for 11 hours (with breaks.) A serious investigation was used as political theater — with unexpected results.

There have previously been seven investigations into the tragic attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, totaling millions of dollars in costs. Therefore, pundits generally agreed before yesterday that latest hearing, number eight, had a purpose that wasn’t strictly about inquiring into what could be done to prevent a similar tragedy. Instead, it was designed to be a public spectacle, a chance to get Clinton to look bad, or to admit to something conspiratorial that her opponents may now actually believe happened because their base is so convinced it did.

This “Kabuki theater” theory was augmented by a “gaffe” from erstwhile Speaker of the House candidate Kevin McCarthy a few weeks back, when he told Sean Hannity that the Benghazi committee had lived up to its purpose — deflating Clinton’s poll numbers. “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee,” he said. “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.”

Never mind that “untrustable” is not a word. McCarthy verbalized what many had already suspected about the hearings being less about truth and more about partisanship, a notion that was further reinforced by yesterday’s proceedings, which were excruciating at best. If Clinton’s testimony yesterday was meant to be a publicly-watched proceeding that buried her reputation, than it was judged accordingly, based on how everyone “performed” and “came across.” And it seems like the hearing backfired in a major way, boosting Clinton’s campaign, garnering her sympathy, and making her seem decidedly Presidential as she cooly faced a barrage of questions.

First of all, the questioning went on for the entire day and seemed designed to wear Clinton down. Instead, there were embarrassing scuffles between committee members — even some conservatives said the entire thing was a farce. For the most part, Clinton handled the marathon with gravitas, taking responsibility for mistakes, showing emotion (something she’s accused of not doing enough), and seeming thoughtful and composed (if occasionally contemptuous of some questions.) By contrast, those who questioned her got progressively hotter under the collar and obsessed about seemingly non-germane topics, like Sidney Blumenthal, a Clinton friend with whom she emailed a lot.

Jamelle Bouie at Slate summed up the pundit class’s take this morning:

You don’t have to like Clinton to see that this is a coup for her campaign. Not only has she bolstered her image as a smart, competent policymaker, but she’s even defused her email controversy — or come close to it — by talking about the issue in a calm, nonadversarial way. ..When [the hearing] began, conventional wisdom was that Hillary had to survive the scrutiny. That at best, this would be a wash. Toward the end, however, that wisdom changed. “Unless something happens,” wrote conservative columnist Matt Lewis on Twitter, “it’s starting to look like Hillary Clinton won’t merely survive this hearing — she will have come out on top.” But perhaps the most succinct commentary came from Trevor Noah, who compared Kevin McCarthy and Trey Gowdy to a pair of supervillains and the hearings to a show that had to be binge-watched. “McCarthy! You just admitted to convening the committee to hurting Hillary Clinton. Classic supervillain mistake. You have to wait until your enemy is dead before you reveal the plot!” said Noah to one. And then he went after Gowdy, too: “Aw, man, Gowdy. That must be horrible, having your character and motives constantly attacked. But hey, man — if you ever need to talk, I know someone who can empathize,” he continued, as one Hillary Clinton appeared on the screen.” Noah’s take on the matter seemed definitive. And there’s nothing like super-villains to turn someone into a superhero. Anecdotally, several Bernie Sanders supporters and reluctant Hillary supporters reported to me feeling more positively about the likely Democratic nominee thanks to her “performance.” I saw dozens of internet comments noting they think this moment might have clinched her not just the nomination, but the Presidency. Whoops. Whether they’re going after Planned Parenthood, Sandra Fluke, or Hillary Clinton, at some point the GOP is going to have to realize the terrible optics of hearings in which they’re screaming at calm and composed women for hours at a time.