On Thursday, when former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appears before the Senate Benghazi Committee for a new round of hearings, reporters with vivid historical imaginations will be pining for an epic battle. Melodramatic journalists may recall the 1950-1951 Kefauver Committee investigating organized crime, which introduced politicized television dramas to millions of Americans. They may evoke the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, when the aristocratic Boston lawyer Joseph Welch cold-cocked the anti-communist Senator Joe McCarthy by asking: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” They will yearn for the constitutional grandeur of the 1973 Senate Watergate hearings, which exposed Richard Nixon’s corruption. Alas, most likely, we will endure yet another round of the 1990s’ tawdry Clinton follies, which diminished both parties and helped trigger our current political depression.
Although Hillary Clinton often performs well under pressure and probably has rehearsed a dramatic soundbite or two to rile her partisan base, these hearings are bad news for her campaign. The email server scandal has gotten more traction than the Clintonites would have expected. It stirs fears that both Hillary and Bill Clinton are so convinced of their own goodness, their own idealism, their own contributions to the public good, that they exempt themselves from the rules ordinary Americans must follow. The scandal also reminds many of the Clintons’ moral blindspot, their ethical sloppiness that led them into the cozy, overlapping, ambiguities, and occasional lies behind the Whitewater mess, the Travelgate coverup, the Paula Jones sexual harassment, the Monica Lewinsky obstruction of justice, and a host of lesser Clinton catastrophes.
Many Americans had Clinton fatigue by 2000, despite Clinton’s record high approval ratings. And with our Canadian neighbors just having voted in Justin Trudeau due to Stephen Harper fatigue, Hillary Clinton should remember that American voters want a fresh start after enduring a decade and a half of terrorist fears and economic woes, preceded by a scadal-plagued, hyper-partisan period of peace and prosperity in the 1990s.
Democrats also should worry that Hillary Clinton’s best defense is pretty offensive. She will play the partisan card. In the final question of the Democratic debate, Anderson Cooper asked “Which enemy are you most proud of?” Hillary Clinton answered: “Well, in addition to the NRA, the health insurance companies, the drug companies, the Iranians. Probably the Republicans.” In his presidential announcement-esque I’m-not-running speech Vice President Joe Biden pointedly said: “I don’t think we should look at Republicans as our enemies.” How does a candidate who compares Republicans to Iranians woo centrist voters in crucial swing states? And you can imagine the general campaign commercials asking: How does a president who demonizes her rivals work with them after Election Day?
Republicans should not be too cocky about these hearings either. The male senators pounding away at millions of American women’s best chance at a female president should beware the Anita Hill effect. During the 1991 fight over the sexual harassment allegations during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination hearings, hostile senators interrogating Thomas’s female accuser looked like bullies who, in the parlance of the time, “just didn’t get it.” For the last six years, the Democrats have cleverly cast the Republicans as the party of no. In the 1990s, the Clintons cleverly cast the Republicans as a party of Ken Starrs, prosecutorial prigs abusing congressional and federal powers to subvert the political process and undermine the Constitution.
Moreover, Hillary Clinton’s defense during the last set of hearings more accurately reflects the public mood. Four brave Americans died. Their Islamist terrorist murderers are the guilty ones, not whatever mistaken spin the Obama administration may or may not have put on it subsequently.
Since the 1990s, gotcha journalism and politics have ruined politicians’ reputations and soured Americans on politics. Unlike the Watergate scandal, which produced heroes defending the Constitution like Judge John Sirica and Senator Sam Ervin, the Clinton scandals, and especially the Monica Lewinsky debacle, tarnished everyone involved. Journalists and Republicans looked like bullies, invading people’s privacy, treating personal indiscretions as high crimes not even misdemeanors. Feminists and Democrats sounded like hypocrites, excusing sexual harassment and the White House as a hostile workplace for women as long as the perpetrator was a pro-choice liberal. The people’s business suffered. In post Watergate America, the Pig-Pen-like cloud shrouding the Clintons, and their supporters’ “everybody does it” defense, had once naïve Americans now cynically grumbling, “they’re all guilty of something.”
Inevitably, after the Thursday hearings, too many Republicans and Democrats will assess the results based on quickie polls suggesting who “won” or “lost” the exchange, and whether Hillary Clinton’s popularity rises or falls. Washington should start tracking a different set of poll results. Back in the 1950s and the 1960s, the vast majority of Americans trusted their government. The most recent Gallup poll has only 19 percent of Americans surveyed agreeing that “you can trust government to do what is right.” Those metrics suggested that both Democrats and Republicans, all the presidential candidates, the president, Congress, and the Supreme Court, have disappointed the American people. A healthy democracy needs citizens with more faith in their government, we don’t need more recriminations, the criminalizing of politics, or more partisan clashes. Perhaps it is time for Senate Republicans to join Democrats in creating a bipartsan committee to investigate that problem, and begin by inviting all presidential candidates to testify about what they will do to make Americans believe in Washington again.