Missed opportunity.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

House Botches a Chance to Air Clinton's Misdeeds

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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The House Oversight Committee had the perfect stage today when it brought FBI Director James Comey in for a hearing on Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. The panel’s Republican members could have pressed him to detail what he had called Clinton’s “extreme carelessness” in using a personal communications system to conduct her work as secretary of state. Comey had reams of material to refer to, if they had cared to ask.  

Instead, House Republicans chose to browbeat the FBI director for his decision not to indict her for her behavior. As a result, most of Comey’s time was spent defending himself -- in effect, making the case that Clinton’s actions were not as bad as House Republicans believed.

In other words, Republicans overreached once again (as Greg Sargent pointed out Wednesday).

Why did they do this, since that general strategy has backfired on them in the past? I’ll offer three theories. 

First, there’s a lack of competence. House Republicans overall are relatively inexperienced. The chairman of the Oversight Committee, Jason Chaffetz, was first elected in 2008; others on the panel have less seniority. Granted, that is partly because of the cycle of the party’s wins and losses. Democratic landslides in 2006 and 2008 wiped out some senior Republicans, and Republican landslides in 2010 and 2014 brought in lots of new members.

But part of it is that the Republicans have term limits for committee chairmen, making it hard for members to develop extensive relevant expertise. And the Republicans, by demonizing political experience, have tended to nominate candidates who can honestly brag about their lack of it. Indeed, several Republican lawmakers at today’s hearing mentioned that they were aren’t lawyers and emphasized identities outside of politics. 

A second explanation for the Republicans’ behavior is the conservatives’ closed-information loop. Within the loop, Hillary Clinton is obviously a crook, and an indictment has been in the offing for more than 20 years. Given that mindset, it didn’t make any sense that she wasn’t charged with a crime, because she’s assumed to be guilty of everything. To the extent Republican politicians were within that loop, it was hard for them to understand Comey’s decision in any other terms.

The third factor, and the most important one, may have less to do with being trapped within that loop than it does with Republican pandering to those who get most of their information from conservative media. So even if Republicans on the Oversight Committee realized that what they were doing wasn’t the best way to hurt Clinton, they had strong incentives to behave that way anyway, because they are terrified of not appearing to be tough enough on her before the party’s most committed voters in their districts. 

We’ve seen this over and over. The goal for Republican politicians isn’t to carry out conservative policy, or even to win advantages for the party over the Democratic opposition. It’s to make sure there is as little space as possible between themselves and other conservatives, to head off primary challenges within the party. 

Probably all three factors explain today’s overreach -- and suggest that we’ll see such displays again, no matter how ineffective they are.

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