Vice President Joe Biden said Wednesday that the “window” had closed on his opportunity to run for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. What he didn’t mention is that it was House Republicans – and in particular the Select Committee investigating the 2012 Benghazi attacks – that slammed it shut.
Biden was seen by most as the only Democrat with a plausible path to victory over Clinton in a Democratic primary. Her current top challenger, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has gained more traction than many expected. But few view Sanders – a self-described socialist – as a viable candidate in the general election. The conventional wisdom is that the party will eventually gravitate toward someone with the ability to actually win the White House.
The question of whether Clinton could actually win in the general election was likely a major factor in Biden’s decision-making. A politically damaged Clinton might lose supporters to Biden if the Democratic electorate started worrying about her electability. But the Republicans in the House, despite their best efforts, made a Clinton victory much more likely over the past month.
The biggest stumbling block between Clinton and the White House was never her declared opponents, but rather the public perception that she is untrustworthy and insincere. Republicans have been using the controversy over the September 2012 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, to reinforce that perception. More than half a dozen congressional investigations were launched, keeping the attack in which four Americans lost their lives in the public eye for more than three years, and generating allegations of cover-ups, conspiracies, and other wrongdoing.
The former secretary of state even helped them out, by deciding not to use an official State Department email account during her four years as the country’s top diplomat, opting instead for a private server located in her own home.
However, in a series of missteps over the past month, members of the House GOP have managed to make Clinton look more like a victim than an untrustworthy politician.
The House Select Committee on Benghazi, chaired by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) was meant to deliver the final word on the attacks, and to do so without seeming like a political witch hunt. Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor, presented a diligent, just-the-facts-ma’am persona in his public statements, and generally succeeded in keeping the committee out of the swamp of partisan politics for most of its first year.
Last month, though, things started to go south for the Select Committee. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, speaking to Fox News, credited the committee for driving down Clinton’s poll numbers, and did so in terms suggesting that had been the point of the exercise all along.
McCarthy later backtracked, but Democrats had their opening and they jumped at the chance to characterize the Select Committee as a politically-driven fishing expedition created specifically to damage Clinton.
Gowdy found himself playing defense, and wasn’t helped when, a few weeks later, another House Republican said essentially the same thing as McCarthy.
In a radio interview, Rep. Richard Hanna (R-NY) said, “Kevin McCarthy basically blew himself up with that comment over the Benghazi committee.… Sometimes the biggest sin you can commit in D.C. is to tell the truth.”
“This may not be politically correct,” Hanna said, “but I think there was a big part of this investigation that was designed to go after an individual, Hillary Clinton.”
“After what Kevin McCarthy said, it’s difficult to accept at least a part of it was not,” he said. “I think that’s the way Washington works. But you’d like to expect more from a committee that’s spent millions of dollars and tons of time.”
Gowdy was reduced to going on the Sunday talk shows and telling his fellow Republicans to just shut up.
“I have told my Republican colleagues and friends, ‘Shut up talking about things that you don’t know anything about,’” Gowdy said on Face the Nation. “Unless you’re on the committee, you have no idea what we’ve done, why we’ve done it, and what new facts we have found. We have found new facts, John that have absolutely nothing to do with her. I get that people don’t want to talk about that, but the seven members of my committee are much more focused on the four dead Americans than we are on anyone’s presidential aspirations.”
All of Gowdy’s protestations, however, failed to stop the flood of stories making the committee look more and more like a political attack operation. Democrats on the committee released excerpts from witness interviews that they claimed prove that many of the allegations that GOP lawmakers have raised are untrue.
The CIA announced that it was not opposed to the public release of some of the material from Clinton’s emails that the committee had described as classified.
Gowdy himself, after making headlines with a claim that Clinton herself had put a CIA informant at risk by forwarding an email with his name on it through her personal account, apparently released the man’s name inadvertently in an email.
Clinton will appear before the committee tomorrow to testify. But much of the anticipation surrounding her testimony is no longer rooted in uncertainty about how tough and damaging the questioning will be, but rather about how the Republicans on the panel will avoid making themselves look like they are involved in a partisan persecution of the other party’s presidential frontrunner.
There were, no doubt, many factors that played into Joe Biden’s decision regarding a presidential run. Chief among them, as he said in his announcement Wednesday, was making sure that his family was sufficiently recovered from the death of his son, Beau, who died of cancer over the summer.
Biden on Wednesday suggested that the grieving process had simply taken too long, and that, as he put it, the window had closed. But the first primaries are still months away, and a politician with Biden’s name recognition would have, at least, a fighting chance to gain a foothold between now and then. That’s why, when he talks about windows closing, Biden might be referring more to Clinton’s overall electability than to the calendar.