Former secretary of state and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during here marathon testimony before the House Benghazi Select Committee on Oct. 22.
Former secretary of state and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during here marathon testimony before the House Benghazi Select Committee on Oct. 22.
WASHINGTON – If House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is correct in asserting that the Benghazi Select Committee’s work was responsible for driving down Hillary Clinton’s favorable ratings, it is equally true that the Oct. 22 Benghazi hearing gave Clinton a big boost in her resurgence. Clinton emerged from the hearing as a confident, poised victor while Republicans slinked away, tails between their legs, having failed miserably in accomplishing anything of value either for their side or the American people.
Clinton is now on a roll that began with McCarthy’s truthful gaffe on FOX’s Sean Hannity show in late September. His comments amounted to an admission that Republicans were using tax dollars to derail her presidential campaign. Clinton’s appearance three weeks later before the Select Committee further exposed the brazenly political nature of the committee’s work as the rude, accusatory questioning was clearly designed to discredit her rather than determine the truth.
Indeed, the amateurish, bumbling performance by Republican members of the Benghazi Committee, including Indiana’s Rep. Susan Brooks, handed Clinton a platform to appear presidential while they looked partisan and petty. The Republicans’ bizarre obsession with Clinton confidant Sydney Blumenthal, in particular, underscored the partisan focus of the investigation as well as highlighting the ineptitude of the Republican members’ interrogation strategy. Blumenthal’s name came up more times than the actual attack on Benghazi.
The hearings reflect the mess that is the Republican Party today. A band of ideological, uncompromising radicals who form the ironically named Freedom Caucus are holding the U.S. House of Representatives hostage, preventing any important and sorely needed legislation from reaching the floor for a vote.
Similarly, rebellious outsiders and extreme right-wingers are dominating the 2016 race for the Republican presidential nomination. The two leading contenders are a billionaire celebrity who garners attention by attacking anyone in politics or the media who annoys him and a medical doctor fond of Nazi references. Neither has held office or has a plan for how they would govern. No establishment candidate is currently polling in double figures nationally.
The GOP is in total disarray as ultra-conservative and establishment wings battle for the soul of the party. In recent times, Republicans have consistently nominated the establishment candidate with two notable exceptions, 1964 and 1980. This election could very well be another time in which Republicans choose a standard bearer who comes from outside the party’s mainstream.
The roots of 1964 can be found during the Eisenhower administration. Conservatives, who chafed at the expansion of government under Eisenhower, began to organize in earnest in the late 1950’s.  In a speech to the 1960 Republican National Convention, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater strongly urged conservative activists to take control of the party.  That is exactly what they did, culminating in Goldwater’s nomination four years later. Goldwater’s candidacy in 1964 was doomed with a fractured Republican Party and in the wake of the Kennedy assassination.
But the conservative movement came roaring back in the late 1970’s as the turmoil of the 1960’s and 1970’s produced a backlash that produced Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. During the 1980’s, Reagan’s conservative views became mainstream within the Republican Party.
The 2016 election is shaping up to be more like 1964 than 1980.  Conservatives within the party, disillusioned by excessive spending during the presidency of George W. Bush and motivated by utter distain for President Barack Obama, are determined to nominate one of their own. Like 1964, the GOP is bitterly divided between conservatives and establishment Republicans. However, unlike either 1964 or 1980, there is no consensus candidate driving the conservative message.
Instead, Donald Trump, running as a conservative, is leading in all the national polls, although he has no real allegiance to conservative or establishment elements in the party.  Behind Trump (and ahead in some polls in Iowa) is Ben Carson, who has energized portions of the conservative wing of the party.  The polling numbers of Trump and Carson combined amount to more than 50% of Republican voters.
Meanwhile, none of the establishment candidates  – Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, or Chris Christie – is generating any traction with primary voters. In fact, the Bush campaign seems to be unraveling as the candidate is losing his cool in public appearances while he has had to cut back drastically on campaign expenses.  Rubio, for his part, is generating bad headlines as he has the worst voting record in the Senate, reinforcing skeptics who say he is not ready to be president.  
On top of poor polling performances by establishment candidates, the theory that eventually Trump or Carson will have to face an establishment candidate is undercut by GOP delegate selection rules.  Florida, where Trump is besting both “favorite sons” Bush and Rubio two to one in recent polls, is a winner-take-all state, as is Ohio, where Trump is crushing Kasich.  In the March 1 Super Tuesday states, party rules require that a candidate receive a minimum 20% of the vote as a condition of receiving delegates. Under current polling, only Trump and Carson would be eligible to receive delegates to the Republican nominating convention.  The decision by the party to front load the nominating process may for all practical purposes prevent an establishment candidate from catching fire in time to stop either Trump or Carson.
Democrats seem poised to produce an opposite result, an establishment candidate.  Hillary Clinton capitalized on McCarthy’s admission about the Benghazi Committee’s partisan intentions with a strong debate performance punctuated by a Bernie Sanders’ gift about Clinton’s emails. More problematic for Sanders is his record on guns that is clearly out of step with the views of most Democrats.
Clinton’s numbers began bouncing back even before her command performance before the Benghazi Committee. Her rising poll numbers put more pressure on Sanders to win both Iowa and New Hampshire – a tough assignment – to have any legitimate shot at the nomination.
Democrats have also front-loaded their nominating process. That may give Clinton a chance to wrap up the nomination in March. Unfortunately, an early result could give Clinton more time to make unforced errors.  As Obama’s chief strategist David Axelrod points out, “She generally has been better with her back to the wall than when she is comfortably ahead.”
By overreaching and suggesting that Clinton was responsible for the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others, Republicans on the Benghazi Select Committee missed an opportunity to challenge Clinton on flawed Middle East policy, a legitimate point of contention. And, by doing so, they may have immunized her against such attacks during the general election. The debacle of the Benghazi committee hearing demonstrates how right-wing politics in the Congress are having a critical impact on the presidential race.

Sautter is a Democratic consultant based in Washington, an Indiana native, and a regular HPI contributor.