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making sense of the news one week at a time
Benghazi Hearings: Congress as Reality TV
I've had a hard time figuring out how to write about Benghazi without becoming part of the problem. So much nonsense has been spouted that simply saying "Benghazi" in certain circles is code for "impeach President Obama". And that puts the rest of us in the don't-think-about-an-elephant zone, where even explaining why something is nonsense reinforces it.
This week it got worse. Wednesday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held new hearings on Benghazi, showcasing what Chairman Darrell Issa referred to as "whistleblowers" who "revealed new information that undermines the Obama Administration's assertion that there are no more questions left to answer about Benghazi." (When has there ever been a subject with "no more questions left to answer"? If that's the goal, hearings will continue forever.)
In anticipation of those hearings, apparently without knowing exactly what the witnesses would say, Mike Huckabee predicted on his Fox News show: "I believe that before it's all over, this president will not fill out his full term." ( Senator Inhofe at least waited for the hearings to happen before he predicted impeachment.) Repeating a talking point I heard elsewhere on Fox and saw in comments all over the internet, Huckabee claimed Benghazi was "more serious" than Watergate "because four Americans did in fact die" a statement that could only make sense if President Obama had been part of a plot to kill them. (As Bob Cesca has pointed out, American embassies and consulates were attacked 13 times during the Bush administration, with far a death total far beyond four. You probably don't remember any of those incidents.)
If you listened to such predictions at length and they were made 24/7 on Fox and the rest of the conservative media you were primed to jump straight from "new Benghazi revelations" to "high crimes and misdemeanors".
Then we get to Wednesday. Three State Department insiders did testify, and they did provide new information that made the Obama administration look bad. However, none of the new information is on the scale that the hype predicted, and much of it contradicted conspiracy theories popular on the Right. But their testimony did give an excuse for headlines about "new Benghazi revelations" that then fueled even more discussion of some of the same conspiracy theories that the testimony directly contradicted.
Let's see if we can sort this out. Before listening to anybody's commentary, I recommend looking at the Wikipedia article on the attack as a whole. Seeing the basic outline of what-happened-when will immunize you to a lot of the obvious nonsense being thrown around.
Like any event that turns out badly, Benghazi leaves three avenues for criticism: lack of preparation and precautions before the fact, debatable decisions made during the event, and inaccurate statements made after the event. (A comparison to the "other" 9-11 is useful: The government ignored warnings that attacks were imminent; in hindsight, you can imagine pulling first-responders out of the second tower as soon as the first one collapsed; and clean-up crews were given bad information about the toxicity of the debris.)
At Benghazi, you can argue that the State Department sent people into too dangerous a situation with too little protection. You can blame the administration for the deployment and Congress for not appropriating enough for security.
You can also wish that some kind of rescue force could have been sent to save the four American lives. That's the gist of the most quoted testimony Wednesday: Gregory Hicks talked very emotionally about four special forces soldiers who wanted to get from Tripoli to Benghazi, but couldn't. When you look at actual timelines, though, the transport plane they failed to get onto arrived at Benghazi after the four victims were already dead. Hicks also wished an F-16 could have flown over Benghazi as a show of force that might have discouraged the second attack. But the Pentagon has made it clear that the nearest planes, based in Italy, are not on 24-hour alert and actually could not have been scrambled (together with the needed in-air refueling tanker) in time.
And finally, you can criticize what the administration said about the attacks afterward. This is probably the most legitimate criticism, but it's also the least consequential, because at that point the attack had already happened and the four Americans were already dead. You can accuse the administration of making misleading statements like no administration ever did that before but nothing in the aftermath is remotely criminal or actionable. (It's even arguable that what we see in the changing talking points is an ordinary bureaucratic turf fight, unrelated to the November election.)
Only a charlatan can say that Benghazi is "worse than Watergate" and then focus on Susan Rice's performance on the Sunday talk shows. Nobody died because of what Rice said on "Meet the Press".
To me, a story that is every bit as important as as Benghazi itself is: What has happened to our national conversation that has caused us to discuss Benghazi in such an outrageous way? It's tempting to say, "Oh, that's just politics." But it really isn't, or at least it didn't used to be. Try to imagine the Democrats in Congress treating 9-11 this way: "It's far worse than Watergate; thousands of Americans are dead."
There was certainly no lack of 9-11 conspiracy theories that Democrats could have winked and nodded at. Plenty of crazies put up web pages claiming that 9-11 was an inside job. One poll claimed that a third of the country believed the Bush administration had at least some role in letting the attacks happen.
Democrats in Congress could have pandered to that view. The model Republicans have used with Benghazi (and Solyndra and Fast & Furious, both of which have fizzled as scandals, despite being "worse than Watergate" for a time) would have worked just as well: Don't endorse any specific theory with checkable details, but announce over-the-top general judgments that only the most extreme conspiracy theories could justify. Lump all the theories under one vague label (Benghazi!) and leave your rhetoric slippery, so that you can encourage all the nutcases without pinning yourself down. Turn every new detail into a promise that more revelations are coming.
The Democratic leadership never went down that road. 9-11 was a national tragedy, not a political football. There were hearings and investigations, and some people in both parties asked tough questions, but that's where the comparison ends. Getting tagged as a Truther was the kiss-of-death in the Democratic establishment. ( Ask Van Jones.)
But the Republican leadership has gone down that road with Benghazi. And the result is that lots of the Republican rank-and-file will tell you that Obama should be impeached for Benghazi!, even though they can't quite say what Benghazi! means, beyond "four Americans are dead". On the Reality-Based Community blog, Andrew Sabl spelled it out:
- At this point in the career of a scandal, or attempted scandal, there are often disagreements over whether the charges are true. But I can't remember the last time I've seen a scandal where I don't even know what they are.
Steve Benen made a similar point:
- Eight months after the attack itself, I know Republicans think there's been a cover-up, but I haven't the foggiest idea what it is they think has been covered up. For all the talk of a political "scandal," no one seems capable of pointing to anything specific that's scandalous. For all the conspiracy theories, there's no underlying conspiracy to be found.
Again, compare to Democrats during the Bush administration. Lots of liberals called for Bush's impeachment, but they offered specific grounds: breaking the laws against torture, or fabricating evidence to invade Iraq. You could argue with their reasoning or their evidence, but you knew what it was. Democrats in Congress could have made hard-to-pin-down code words out of Abu Ghraib or Katrina, and linked them (deniably) to wild conspiracy theories, but they didn't.
It's tempting to stop there, with the implication that Democrats in Congress have more honesty or civic virtue than Republicans. But I think there's a deeper level to examine. Democrats didn't pander to the third of the country that was open to a 9-11 conspiracy theories because it was only a third of the country. You can't win elections with 33% of the vote.
Republicans are clearly not thinking that way. As I listen to Republican politicians talk about Benghazi, they seem to be making no effort at all to speak to the majority of Americans or to offer evidence that might convince a swing voter. They are talking to their base, which is probably about a third of the country.
What's going on? I think David Frum had it right: "Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us and now we're discovering we work for Fox." The point of Benghazi! isn't to deliver a majority of votes for the next Mitt Romney. The point is to get ratings for Fox and subscribers for Glenn Beck. The Conservative Entertainment Complex has taken control of the Republican Party and is managing the Party for its own purposes. A third of the country? It may not win many elections, but it's a fabulous audience for an entertainer.