Kevin McCarthy has this thing sewn up. The Republican Majority Leader in the House of Representatives is almost sure to succeed John Boehner as the next Speaker of the House when the longtime Ohio congressman retires from politics later this month. The Speaker-in-waiting stumbled onto a landmine this week, and it represents an ominous portent for his tenure in the Speaker’s chair.
Politicians are most liable to get themselves in trouble when they play pundit, and that’s precisely what McCarthy did when he speculated that Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers have been on the decline because of what has been uncovered by the House select committee investigating the Benghazi attacks. Of course, that’s true. Clinton’s decline in general election surveys is mostly result of the acute attention to her scandalous behavior as Secretary of State. But McCarthy’s artless comments have provided Democrats, who want nothing more than to frame the investigation into her conduct and the terror attacks in Benghazi as a partisan witch-hunt, with an excuse to protest Clinton’s imagined victimization. And Clinton is most comfortable when she can play the wounded party.
“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?” McCarthy said in an appearance on the Fox News Channel. “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.”
There is nothing factually inaccurate about these comments, which is the essence of the problem with them. By coupling Clinton’s falling poll numbers, precipitated by her collapsing trust ratings, with the probe into her conduct at the State Department, McCarthy provided Clinton backers with an opportunity to contend that the investigation into Benghazi is an outgrowth of a partisan desire among Republicans to handicap Clinton’s candidacy.
“McCarthy admitted what we all knew: Benghazi Committee was nothing more than a farce — a political hit job intended to hurt Hillary,” wrote Hillary Clinton for America Campaign Chairman John Podesta.
“The ‘Benghazi’ story, issue, whatever you want to call it, has always been about and solely about exploiting the death of four Americans for partisan political gain,” Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall averred with dramatic flourish. “Always. From day one. Full stop.”
Even Clinton herself advanced this narrative in an interview with MSNBC host Al Sharpton. “I find them deeply distressing,” Clinton said of McCarthy’s statements. “[W]hen I hear a statement like that, which demonstrates unequivocally that this was always meant to be a partisan political exercise, I feel like it does a grave disservice and dishonors not just the memory of the four that we lost, but of everybody who has served our country.”
A variety of Democratic lawmakers took this opportunity to contend that the House investigation is hopelessly tainted and that the select committee should disband.
Neither McCarthy’s inartfully honest assessment of present political conditions nor the deeply dishonest histrionics that followed from Team Clinton changes the fact that Clinton’s behavior is what has plunged her into hot water. On Thursday, FBI Director James Comey confirmed that his agency was investigating the security of Clinton’s private email server that is alleged to have contained hundreds of improperly secured classified state secrets. The slow drip of scandalous revelations and the criminal implications of Clinton’s conduct remain the real threat to her candidacy.
Clinton’s more intellectually honest supporters, like Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, have declined to suggest that the issues uncovered as a result of the Benghazi committee’s investigation are invalidated by the mere fact that Republicans uncovered them. On Thursday, the Centennial State governor said Clinton’s prospects of becoming the next President of the United States were “kind of grim, to be blunt.”
“I don’t know where this whole thing is going to go in terms of her … (e-mail) server and whether there is something in there that is really going to turn out to have broken the law, which I think would be the death knell,” he added.
But just because the facts are on his side does not absolve McCarthy of fault for stepping on his tongue. House Republicans with a better understanding of how the game of politics is played have had to clean up after the likely incoming Speaker. Among them is John Boehner, who would perhaps like nothing more than to be able to serve out his final days in the chair as quietly as possible.
“This investigation has never been about former Secretary of State Clinton and never will be,” Speaker John Boehner said in a statement. He added that the committee was tasked only with reviewing “what happened before, during, and after the terrorist attack in Benghazi, and to ensure that justice is finally served.”
The Benghazi committee will not unravel as a result of McCarthy’s comments. Nor will Hillary Clinton’s slide in the polls be arrested because she has feigned sufficient offense. Clinton owes her current troubles to herself and her conduct as America’s chief diplomat. McCarthy’s comments should be a source of concern for Republicans insofar as they reflect a counterproductive eagerness to appease those to his right looking to see congressional leadership mirror their own sense of frustration. It is no secret that Boehner’s critics in the conservative wing of his conference made his job a difficult one, and McCarthy might be seeking to assuage that restless faction with tough talk. He shouldn’t; it will not help him or his party one iota, even if it generates a positive mention or two from the personalities who populate the AM dial. Even before he has become Speaker, McCarthy’s debut has been an ill-omened one. Here’s hoping he has learned from this mistake.