Hillary Clinton had a bad day on Tuesday, thanks to FBI Director James Comey’s decision to pair his announcement that nothing illegal happened with her emails with a very public tongue lashing about how "careless" her setup had been, and how various public statements she’d made about it were false or misleading. In a sensible political climate that would have been a bad news cycle or two for Clinton, plus a talking point Trump surrogates could use on cable sporadically when they needed to change the subject in a hurry, plus a bunch of clips for use in ads down the road.
But instead, Republicans have insisted on dragging out the matter, announcing an investigation of Comey’s investigation and calling on him to testify before Congress. House Speaker Paul Ryan has even called for Clinton to be denied national security briefings during the campaign.
If you ever find yourself wondering how it is that Bill Clinton was caught having had a sexual affair with a White House intern and came out more popular than ever, here’s the answer — just as the Clintons and the media are locked in a pointless, toxic cycle of scandal and cover-up, the Republican Party is locked in its own cycle of pathological overreach.
Republicans always go too far
The genius of a good scandal is that it breaks down the boundaries of ordinary political polarization. Just because a person thinks the rich should pay more taxes, abortion should be legal, and carbon dioxide emissions should be regulated doesn’t mean he’s going to defend suspiciously profitable cattle future trading, pardoning the New Square Four, cashing huge checks from Goldman Sachs, or operating a strange off-the-books email server.
This stuff reflects, at a minimum, poor judgment and a lack of self-discipline, and many Democrats and liberals around the country would be happy to say so.
But I’m certainly going to defend Clinton’s right to receive national security briefings — a right that’s given to candidates not as a perk of office but for reasons intimately connected to a clear national interest.
By the same token, it’s a no-brainer to defend the integrity of Comey, a former Republican counsel on the Whitewater investigation and George W. Bush appointee to several high offices, or of Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who clearly did nothing whatsoever wrong here.
Instead of banking the hit to Clinton’s standing that Comey already inflicted as a win and moving on to other arguments, Republican overreach shifts the terms of debate to terrain that’s objectively much less favorable. Now they’re wasting time and money on a witch hunt that’s already been thoroughly investigated, playing partisan politics with crucial briefings, and smearing dedicated public servants whose only crime is refusal to play along with their shenanigans.
It seems insane, but this is the party that managed to turn a presidential sex scandal into an unprecedented midterm election defeat in 1998 through exactly the same mix of hubris and overreach.
The Republican cycle of overreach
The problem for Republicans is that the conservative movement has already firmly committed itself to the narrative that some nefarious entity called "the Clintons" is deeply and profoundly corrupt in some unprecedented way. That’s why behavior that appears entirely innocent to outsiders — things like losing money on a land deal, your friend killing himself, or trying to clean up a mismanaged travel office — end up portrayed as scandals inside the bubble.
Republicans are so convinced there’s a silver bullet out there that will destroy Bill and Hillary’s careers forever that they will chase any shiny object in the hopes that they’ve found it.
Since inside the bubble it’s already taken for granted that "the Clintons" are crooks, the bar for scandal exploitation is set impossibly high.
Rather than accepting a bad news cycle or two for Hillary Clinton as a win, anything that doesn’t result in her being dragged away in chains plays as a loss. So if Comey says she was careless but not a criminal, House Republicans are going to second-guess the FBI. If Lynch accepts the FBI’s recommendation, now she’s a crook too. And the sheer weight of dozens of bogus scandals piled up over a quarter-century means any sensible person tunes it all out.
After all, lost in the endless drive to gin up scandals is any sense of caring about anything that impacts the American people’s actual lives.
Clinton is not a dynamo of charisma on the campaign trail, but she does understand that voters care more about their own problems than about politicians. That’s why she doesn’t just slam Trump for stiffing contractors and leaving small businesses holding the bag; she also rolls out a five-point plan to protect small-business owners against abuse more broadly. The hit on Trump is just the setup for a return to a larger conversation that connects to people’s problems.
For Republicans, every hit on Clinton turns into a second- and third-order story about the political process and who turned what documents over to whom, because they feel compelled to swing for the fences even though time and again they end up striking out.