By the time I woke up this morning the headlines in the papers and the subject on the lips of the cable news talking heads had swerved away from Russia’s activities in Syria to a new “crisis” in American politics. Shockingly, and against all expectations, a member of Congress had said something dumb. (Insert #HeadDesk hashtag here.)
In case you somehow missed it, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy was on Fox News yesterday and was asked to list some of the accomplishments of the Republican majority during this term. The first item on his list was not a terrible choice but his phrasing left something to be desired given the sharp blades of the political meat grinder.
“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? 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.”
That one stopped the presses. You could almost hear the champagne corks popping at Hillary Clinton’s campaign HQ and the most liberal wings of the media let out a collective, “AH HA!” as they saw the trap being sprung. E.J. Dionne leaped to his keyboard at the Washington Post to seize the opportunity.
But McCarthy’s statement gave Democrats what they have long sought: a rather strong public hint that this investigation was never on the level. “This stunning concession from Rep. McCarthy reveals the truth that Republicans never dared admit in public,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the committee’s ranking Democrat. “The core Republican goal in establishing the Benghazi committee was always to damage Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and never to conduct an evenhanded search for the facts.”
Let’s be clear… this wasn’t a “stunning concession” in any way shape or form. We need only look at the last two sentences in his short, painfully worded statement to see what he was trying to get across. The public was initially given a whitewashed story about a video and a terrible twist of fate that made both the White House and the State Department look like innocent victims of circumstance which nobody could have possibly foreseen. Had there not been an extensive series of hearings on the subject the public would never have learned the details.
Yes, it’s no doubt both accurate and obvious to note that nobody in the Republican Party is exactly sad over the fact that such revelations have resulted in the erosion of Hillary Clinton’s popularity and trustworthiness in the eyes of the voting public, but that was collateral damage from the main thrust of the investigation. Unfortunately for McCarthy, in an ill considered moment he chose to mention the side effect before the root cause and the Democrats have pounced on it along with their media allies.
If this were a normal, sleepy political season the response would have been predictable. The GOP would have been lining up behind McCarthy and saying pretty much exactly what I just outlined. It would have been the usual he said, she said between the parties and the public would have yawned, expressing their normal level of disgust with partisan bickering over semantics. But this particular dust-up took place just as McCarthy is making is bid to replace John Boehner as Speaker of the House. There are plenty of heavily conservative voices in both Chambers who view the Majority Leader as insufficiently conservative and this lit up the boards as a chance to stick a quick dagger in his back. (CNN)
Speaking to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room,” [Jason] Chaffetz, R-Utah, said McCarthy should apologize, saying the California Republican made an “absolutely inappropriate statement.”
“I might have said it differently,” Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, told CNN. “Any ancillary political activity that comes out of it is, in fact, not the goal of the committee and is not what the committee is seeking to do.”
Added Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, “I totally disagree with those comments.” Asked if they could jeopardize his bid for speaker, the conservative Amash said: “I think it should be a concern.”
Not all of the objections here are political. The members of Issa’s committee have a lot of time and effort invested in this investigation and they don’t want to see it tarnished by a media food fight over these remarks. But it’s also probably not annoying them very much if there is some additional fallout which damages McCarthy’s chances at moving into the top position.
Unfortunately for the Majority Leader, this is the reality of American politics. You can’t afford to let your concentration slip for even a moment when there’s a camera pointed at you (which means pretty much every waking hour these days) and it doesn’t take more than a minor slip of the lip to bring on the crows. With that in mind, the criticism of McCarthy isn’t entirely off base in at least one regard. The Speaker is under media scrutiny every single day with each utterance being parsed endlessly. These aren’t the types of mistakes that you want them making. So our exit question needs to be: does this derail his path to holding the gavel? And should it, no matter what you thought about him before?