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Hillary Clinton's 11-hour Benghazi testimony was her best campaign ad yet

Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before the House Select Committee on Benghazi October 22, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before the House Select Committee on Benghazi October 22, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Republicans will kick themselves for dragging Hillary Clinton before the House Benghazi committee Thursday.

It was a defining moment for Clinton's presidential aspirations. She handled the GOP’s questions with aplomb and without the patina of partisanship that has characterized the committee since its conception. That would have been bad enough for the Republicans’ hopes of seizing the White House in 2017. But she did much more than that. She answered questions that Republicans have been hanging out there in hopes of sowing doubts among voters.

Does she believe in American exceptionalism? Yes.

Can she be non-partisan, serious, and policy-minded? Yes.

Is her mental acuity superior to pretty much anyone you know? Yes.

Is she human? Yes.

Does she have the energy to be president? Yes.

In a vacuum, Thursday’s hearing would have been a turning point for Clinton. But it comes on the heels of Joe Biden announcing he won’t run, Clinton nailing her debate performance last week, her regular-Jane turn on Saturday Night Live as Val the bartender, and Republican Reps. Kevin McCarthy and Richard Hanna making clear that the Benghazi investigation was designed to hurt her politically — at a cost of nearly $5 million to American taxpayers.

This has been the best month for any presidential candidate since late 2008, when Barack Obama capitalized on the financial crisis, and John McCain's bumbling reaction to it, to win the White House. The hearing was the capstone. It was the best moment of Clinton's campaign to date and should serve as a reminder to her that she's at her best when she's not on the attack.

Don’t take my word for it. Conservative commentators were disgusted with the failure of the committee’s GOP lawmakers to land a single punch on Clinton. The worst thing she acknowledged was that Ambassador Chris Stevens didn’t go outside the chain of command to email her directly about what was happening in Libya. Strategically, the big error for the GOP is having entangled the email investigation with the Benghazi probe. Because the latter is tainted with partisanship, so, too, is the former.

All in all, it was an embarrassment for Republicans and one that, improbably, made Clinton look more presidential.

It all started pretty strong for Clinton

Clinton’s opening statement — delivered on the heels of bickering between Chair Trey Gowdy and top Democrat Elijah Cummings over whether the committee is partisan in nature — was essentially a eulogy for the Americans who died in Benghazi in 2012.

In it, she referred to Ambassador Stevens’s mother saying he had "sand in his shoes" to describe his dedication to on-the-ground diplomacy in dangerous places.

"Before I left office," Clinton said, "I launched reforms to better protect our people in the field."

For the rest of the hearing, she hewed close to the line that she would cooperate in trying to uncover anything that would help keep Americans abroad secure in the future. She also told emotional stories about the night of the Benghazi attacks, recounting how the ambassador and two others tried to crawl out of a smoke-filled building at the Benghazi facility. Two of them didn’t make it out. She described the tense hours when State Department officials couldn’t locate Stevens, and how Libyans poured into the streets in a show of support for him after he was killed. Clinton said she found it "deeply distressing" that she was being blamed for Stevens’s death.

Throughout the hearing, she kept her composure, even when Gowdy became agitated, when Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) fired questions at her in a condescending tone, and when Rep Peter Roskam (R-IL) yelled at her for compiling a list of her accomplishments in Libya.

Roskam accused her of trying to "turn progress in Libya into a political win for Hillary Rodham Clinton" and then shifting her attention away from the country.

Clinton calmly called it a "political statement" that had nothing to do with the matter at hand.

She was in command.

The Republican arguments don’t add up

The biggest problem for the GOP is that there’s nothing more to learn about what happened in Benghazi. Four Americans were killed by terrorists. Clinton didn’t know the attack was coming. And she was the administration official most engaged in the immediate response.

The Republican tack could be broken down into a couple of main points: Roskam argued that Clinton was the chief force behind US Libya policy, while Gowdy and Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA) tried to prove that she was taking more advice from Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal than from Stevens.

It’s true that Clinton was the main architect of US Libya policy. She put together the international coalition that took out Muammar Qaddafi, and she convinced the president it was the right thing to do. But she also noted that it was the president’s call. Republicans proved what she’s written in her book and what many journalists reported at the time.

If the Republican presidential nominee can plausibly claim that he or she was against the Libya war — and some cannot — Roskam’s line of questioning could be useful in the general election. But it wasn’t revealing.

Blumenthal is a red herring — a political hanger-on who emailed Clinton a lot with borrowed intelligence. He’s never been to Libya and didn’t have any firsthand information about the security there. The references to his emails only seemed to underscore how little the hearing had to do with the actual situation on the ground in Libya or the administration’s security posture in Benghazi.

Pompeo grilled Clinton on whether Stevens had her email address, her home address, or her phone number. Her home address can be found on Google. It would not have been hard to reach her in an emergency, and, in fact, she was alerted very quickly when the Benghazi compound was attacked.

The high point for the GOP came around 7 p.m. — nine hours after the hearing began — when Rep. Susan Brooks of Indiana said there was no record of Clinton speaking to Stevens in the months leading up to his death. Did Clinton speak to him? "That's a yes or no question," Brooks insisted.

"I believe I did," Clinton said, though she couldn't cite a date or the nature of a conversation.

No one thinks this was good for Republicans or bad for Clinton

After Roskam accused Clinton of using Libya as a tool for her political advancement, Clinton batted him aside.

"For the witness to be right is a failure of the committee," Lawrence O’Donnell, a former staff director for the Senate Finance Committee, said on MSNBC right after that exchange.

One veteran Republican strategist told me she stopped watching the hearing because "the questioning is so bad."

Clinton’s team couldn’t have dreamed for a better exposition of her strengths and the weakness of her Republican provocateurs. They should ask for another few rounds of questioning — perhaps in the days leading up to the election. And Republicans, as I’ve written before, should shut down this sham before it hurts them any more than it already has. Right now, it's making Clinton look pretty good.

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