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Benghazi has become a political trap from which Republicans cannot escape

For someone who just spent 11 hours in front of an investigative committee, Hillary Clinton sure looks happy.
For someone who just spent 11 hours in front of an investigative committee, Hillary Clinton sure looks happy.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The reviews of Hillary Clinton's Thursday testimony before the House Benghazi committee are in: It was not the success that Republicans had hoped for. Slate's Will Saletan called the 11-hour spectacle  "a self-destructive, partisan embarrassment for the GOP." Vox's Jon Allen dubbed it Clinton's "best campaign ad yet." A number of conservative pundits acknowledged that the hearing, officially about investigating Benghazi but clearly in fact an effort to politically wound Clinton, was a disaster that ended up helping Clinton and blowing up in Republicans' faces.

It's not just this one hearing: Republicans' entire Benghazi endeavor has become politically costly and counterproductive for them — and, worst of all, they're trapped in it. Even if the GOP does see that this is hurting them more than it's helping, they've organized the politics of it so effectively that they have little choice but to maintain the Benghazi circus, even as it continues blowing up in their faces.

The whole thing is a political quagmire. It's a sort of prisoner's dilemma — a theoretical game in which two participants would be better off cooperating, but are forced by circumstances into a self-destructive cycle of competition — and the Republicans are the prisoners. The fundamental problem: Even though Benghazi-mania may be bad for the GOP as a whole, it's utterly rational for individual Republican politicians to get in on it.

How the Benghazi trap works

A classic prisoner's dilemma arises between — you guessed it — two prisoners. Let's call them Jack and Joan. They've been arrested for collaborating on the same crime, and are being held separately.

The prosecutor meets with them independently and offers both Jack and Joan the same deal: Confess and rat on the other one, and you get to walk free — unless the other prisoner also confesses. In that case, you both get moderate jail time. If everyone stays quiet, then the prosecutor will be forced to settle for a token conviction with a light sentence.

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You can probably spot the problem here. For both Jack and Joan individually, it makes sense to confess: If the other person doesn't confess, you go free. If the other one does confess, then he or she gets a lighter sentence than would have been given otherwise. This means the rational move is always to confess — even though the best possible outcome, in terms of overall punishment meted out, is that nobody confesses. In lab experiments where testers ask people to simulate being Joan and Jack, people tend to confess.

There are literally thousands of journal articles about the implications of this idea, for everything from philosophy to international relations to basic psychology. But let's talk Benghazi.

House Republicans compete with one another as well as with Democrats. That's true directly, in primary and leadership races, and less directly, for fundraising dollars and public attention. Benghazi is now part of this competition. It's really important for core Republican voters, the conservative media, and likely some donors.

This puts Republicans who recognize that the focus on Benghazi is a costly waste of time in a prisoner's dilemma with one another. No individual Republican has anything to gain politically by leading a campaign to make the party deemphasize Benghazi. Anyone who does risks losing support to other, more mercenary Republicans — or, worse, becoming the target of attacks from conservatives who genuinely believe there's still some hidden truth about the attack to uncover.

But the best outcome for the party and for individual Republicans would be to drop the issue or, at the very least, confine it to the fringier parts of the party's delegation. But if one Republican ignores Benghazi while another pushes it, the politician peddling Benghazi gets a political advantage.

Here's a table putting it into prisoner's dilemma terms, with "Republican 1" and "Republican 2" replacing Jack and Joan.

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The upshot is that it's rational for every Republican to keep highlighting the issue and support the investigation. That's even true for Republicans who think the Benghazi focus is bad for the party as a whole: Like all politicians, they generally prioritize their own political fortunes over the abstract "good of the party."

So Thursday's hearing mess is unlikely to change very much. It's hard to imagine many Republicans speaking out against the Benghazi investigation, allowing a rolling fiasco to keep rolling.

Why Republicans can't escape the Benghazi trap

trey gowdy

Benghazi committee Chair Trey Gowdy. (Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images)

There is a way to "solve" the prisoner's dilemma. In the late 1970s, University of Michigan political scientist Robert Axelrod ran "tournaments" testing different prisoner's dilemma strategies against each other. Running a number of simulations of different strategies on computers, he found the best strategy was to not confess in the first game, and then do whatever the other player did the next time around. If they confess in round 2, you confess in round 3. (Remember that the best outcome is for neither side to confess.)

This strategy, called tit-for-tat, basically evolved into an agreement not to confess: Once a player learned that the other person was willing to work with him to get the best outcome, he started cooperating.

That doesn't appear to be happening with Benghazi. Even after the hearing, Republicans showed little inclination to back off the issue.

There are lots of potential reasons that could be true; here are three. First, pressure from true believer Republicans: There are probably enough Republicans who believe investigating Benghazi is an important and correct use of the GOP's time that the party is genuinely incapable of backing off without a massive internal fight.

Second, it's hard to see how you would enforce a hypothetical secret or unstated agreement for House Republicans to give up the issue for the party's greater good.

Finally, there's no real way to make a credible commitment to give up on Benghazi. The Benghazi committee uncovered the Clinton private email scandal — suggesting there might be more to be found if Republicans keep digging. The committee still has thousands of emails to go through, from both Clinton and Ambassador Chris Stevens, who died in the Benghazi attack. Since Republicans can't anticipate what'll be in those emails, and they need the pretext of the Benghazi investigation to keep looking into them, they'll need to keep talking about Benghazi for some time. They're in no position to swear it off indefinitely.

In other words: Expect Republican to be talking about Benghazi for a long, long time — especially if Clinton wins the Democratic nomination and the presidency. They couldn't stop even if they wanted to.