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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