John McCain praised her for her outstanding and dedicated” service to the nation, the very sort of bipartisan warmth that has propelled Hillary Clinton’s popularity to uncharted heights these past four years. But then he switched gears and told the secretary of state that “the answers, frankly, that you’ve given this morning are not satisfactory to me.”
This is how it went for Clinton on Wednesday, when the role she’s played in the Republican Party’s first-term Obama narrative gave way to the role she’ll play for the next four years –unless, of course, she decides to withdraw her name out of the 2016 mix.
In hours of testimony before separate Senate and House committees, Republicans took turns leveling accusatory questions and insinuations about how she and the Obama administration handled the Benghazi attack and whether some sort of cover-up might have been – or might still be – afoot. Rand Paul told her that if her were president, “I would have relieved you of your duties.” Ron Johnson got into a heated exchange with her, then accused her of deciding “to describe emotionally the four dead Americans, the heroes, and use that as her trump card.” South Carolina Rep. Jeff Duncan told her that her gross negligence” had turned the American diplomatic installation in Benghazi into “a deathtrap.”
It was a partisan pile-on nearly five years in the making. The right’s treatment of both Clintons, Hillary and Bill, can be divided into two distinct phases in the time they’ve been on the national stage.
For the first 16 years, from 1992 until sometime in the late winter of 2008, they personified ruthless and amoral cultural elitism – the preeminent symbols of a Democratic Party with contempt for the values of church-going blue collar and middle-class America. It was in this period that Pat Buchanan brought the Republican convention to its feet by deriding Hillary as the radical “lawyer-spouse” of Bill; that Jesse Helms suggested Bill might be shot if he dared step foot in North Carolina; that phony evidence linking both Clintons to drug-running and murder was widely circulated on the right; that Bill was impeached; and that in the wake of 9/11, the right sought to pin the blame on his administration. When Hillary began her 2008 presidential campaign as the overwhelming Democratic front-runner, conservatives focused their fire on her, portraying her main opponent – Barack Obama – was a decent, well-meaning reformer who was about to get chewed up by a brutal political machine.
But then, in February 2008, Obama unexpectedly took command of the race and Hillary fell hopelessly behind in the delegate count. And just like that, their roles flipped. Suddenly, it was Obama who was the face of a culturally arrogant, far-left Democratic Party. And it was Hillary Clinton who became the face of a God-fearing white working-class that the Obama crowd looked down on. The switch happened virtually overnight; you could practically pinpoint it.
This is where Hillary’s enviable poll numbers were born. For the rest of the 2008 campaign, the right painted her and her husband as innocent victims of Obama’s power-grab. And as the right waged all-out war on Obama during his first term, the Clintons came to play an even more useful role: symbols of a bygone moderate, compromise-friendly Democratic Party tradition that Obama and his crew had supposedly forsaken. Thus, since 2008, there has been no organized, public opposition to the Clintons to speak of. The Obama wing of the Democratic Party forgave and forgot the ’08 primary campaign and fell back in love with the Clintons for their public support of the president – even as Republicans pretended there was a deep divide between the Clinton and Obama crowds. The average voter, Democrat or Republican, was given no reason to dislike either Clinton. Hillary’s final job approval score as secretary of state, measured last week, came in at 69 percent.
But Wednesday may have been a wake-up call for her. Hillary was clearly prepared for the grilling – Republicans have been scrambling to elevate Benghazi to scandal status for more than four months now – and by just about all accounts handled her inquisitors masterfully. But it’s one thing to deal with a chorus of overheated Republican accusations and insinuations for one day. If Hillary decides to run for president in ’16, what she endured Wednesday will become the norm – just as it was from 1992 to 2008. Benghazi itself will probably fade from the news, but it doesn’t really matter. As a candidate, Hillary would be the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination; the right would have no trouble manufacturing controversy after controversy to erode her popularity and transform her back into a polarizing figure.
This doesn’t mean that they’d beat her. As I wrote the other day, Hillary has the potential to virtually clear out the ’16 Democratic field if she runs, much the way Al Gore did in 2000. And if Obama’s second term is considered successful, her general election odds would be good. She absolutely could get to the White House in 2016. But Wednesday offered the first indication in a long time of the price she’ll have to pay if she wants to make that journey – a price that she already paid for 16 years and a price that she’d have to keep paying for four or eight years as president.
Maybe she enjoyed sparring with all of those Republican on Wednesday, and relishes sticking it to them all over again for the next decade of her life. Or maybe, just maybe, it was enough to make her wonder: Do I really want to do this all over again?