2016 Elections

How Clinton Capitalized on Benghazi 'Gaffe'

Kevin McCarthy's admission gave her a weapon in her race for the Democratic nomination.

Kevin McCarthy's gift.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Kevin McCarthy’s Benghazi "gaffe" just won't die, thanks to Kevin McCarthy. You'll remember that the House majority leader (and presumptive successor to Speaker John Boehner) bragged that the committee investigating insurgents' 2012 attack on the American diplomatic compound there had essentially served its purpose by lowering Hillary Clinton's polling numbers.

McCarthy was only trying to demonstrate to conservatives how tough he and the current House leadership are. His remark qualified as a Kinsley gaffe -- telling a truth that isn’t supposed to be said out loud.

McCarthy confirmed on Tuesday that the Select Committee on Benghazi is nothing more than a Republican opposition-research operation. As Time’s Zeke Miller reported, McCarthy essentially said that the panel's purpose right now is to investigate Clinton’s e-mails, which at best have only a vague connection to the attacks in Libya. 

So what's the big deal, since we knew this already? 

No one will have a new view of the committee because of McCarthy's admission that it is all about partisan politics. No one will remember this incident in November 2016, when people go to the polls, and it wouldn’t change any voters' minds if they did recall it.

Maybe McCarthy will be hurt in the speaker election if enough House Republicans back off from him, since they would rather have kept up the pretense that the investigation was really about national security (or whatever it is supposed to be about at this point). Even if he wins, he might have to make more specific commitments to wavering members of the Republican conference than he would have without this flap, and that will matter down the road. 

But in the mean time, Clinton is exploiting McCarthy's gaffes with a new TV ad (aimed mainly at party and media elites, since it’s a small national cable buy). Plum Line’s Greg Sargent observes that the underlying message of the ad is Clinton’s competence: Democrats like her because she will (they believe) fight back effectively against Republican attacks.

By focusing on Republicans out to get her, the ad changes the context of her primary contest against Bernie Sanders and, perhaps, Joe Biden. Democrats are far more likely to support Clinton against Republicans than they are against GOP attacks on other Democrats. After all, the Democrats have had a quarter-century of practice in defending both Clintons from such barrages.  

Yes, the Clinton campaign could have run a similar ad without McCarthy’s help. There’s no shortage of material if she’s looking for attacks on her that will sound outrageous to Democrats.

But textures matter in politics as well as outcomes. House Republicans might wind up with a somewhat different strategy for fighting Clinton, knowing that she can turn their singular attacks on her to an advantage in her race for the Democratic nomination. 

The bottom line: Gaffes are quickly forgotten, and most voters never notice them in the first place, let alone allow them to determine their ballot choices. But like all political events, gaffes can cause subtle shifts -- of emphasis, of wording, of influence. And we never know how those small changes resonate down the road.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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