Republicans, Obsessed

The Benghazi committee’s myopia left Hillary Clinton’s vulnerabilities with swing voters untouched.

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Oct. 26, 2015, 8 p.m.

Question: What’s the difference between the House Select Committee on Benghazi’s hearings last week and a train wreck?

Answer: Once a train is coming off the rails, the passengers know it.

When members of the select committee put Hillary Clinton in the pillory last week, they seemed blissfully unaware that they looked like fools. The irony is that opinion polls show that a majority of Americans believe she has been less than truthful and yet still think that these hearings are all about partisanship. No wonder. What came through in the long-anticipated confrontation was that these hearings are less about the murders of four Americans in Libya and more about taking Clinton down, just as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy pretty much conceded a month ago.

Two of the worst sins in politics are to become obsessed with placating your party’s base and to become consumed with hating your opponent. This certainly isn’t the first time a party has engaged in one or both self-destructive activities, and it won’t be the last. The question is whether the Republican Party is squandering the powerful time-for-a-change dynamic, which should be working to its advantage this year, by coming across as a party that is unworthy of being entrusted with all three branches of our federal government.

Unquestionably, there are aspects to Clinton’s tenure as secretary of State that deserve scrutiny. One of them is what she actually accomplished by (according to the State Department, via The Atlantic) spending more than 401 days on the road, visiting 112 countries, and traveling 956,733 miles—equivalent to 38-plus times circling the globe. When GOP presidential contender Carly Fiorina noted during the most recent Republican debate, “Traveling is an activity—it’s not an accomplishment—and unfortunately she didn’t accomplish anything as secretary of State,” she was probing a topic that is probably more promising than any the select committee pursued.

Just as it’s helpful to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, political parties ought to be able to reasonably placate their bases while seeking the support of the independents and moderates who constitute the swing voters. This bloc is becoming increasingly important as the share of Americans who identify with one party or the other keeps getting smaller.

The dynamic is similar in both parties. The pool of moderates and liberals who used to identify as Republicans continues to shrink; so, too, does the pool of moderates and conservatives who formerly considered themselves Democrats. This is making both parties ideologically more cohesive and subject to a partisan fervor that is far more intense than before. Their increasingly monolithic makeup leads inevitably to groupthink among the large majorities in each party that see things in a likeminded way. This leaves both parties less cognizant of that growing proportion of voters in the political center who hold a more balanced, nuanced view of the world.

None of this is really new. A lot of us remember Democrats’ disdain for Ronald Reagan, prior to his 10-point landslide in 1980 over President Carter and his 49-state reelection four years later. Democrats also underestimated George W. Bush’s political abilities before he prevailed in the 2000 and 2004 elections.

But this time, the problem is more than having such low regard for an opponent that you fail to see how she or he could beat you. It’s the danger of being so focused on what makes you hate your opponent that you ignore what could be the opponent’s greatest vulnerabilities in a swing voter’s eyes.

This is the logical result of having so many members of Congress who represent politically monolithic constituencies: They can’t think like swing voters because they know so few of them. After Mitt Romney lost to President Obama in 2012, a Republican House member told me she was shocked. It had never occurred to her that Romney wouldn’t win because she didn’t know anyone who had voted for Obama.

Some of the smartest Republicans I know are deeply worried that their party is on the verge of blowing a chance at winning the presidency because it has become so myopic—practicing subtraction politics rather than addition politics, narrowing instead of expanding their party’s appeal. Post-World War II politics argue that it’s very difficult for a party to win the presidency three times in a row. It has happened only once, in 1988, after George H.W. Bush succeeded two-termer Reagan; five times, it didn’t. Republicans have lost the national popular vote in five out of the past six elections and the Electoral College majority in four of those.

Now that the country is rapidly getting younger and more ethnically diverse, the Republican Party is doubling down on its appeal to older, whiter voters. It is moving to the right as the center is bulging ever larger.

Interesting strategy.

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