What Monica Lewinsky can teach Republicans about Benghazi

Last week brought a refresher course in late-1990s politics, thanks to Monica Lewinsky. Those lessons might be useful to Republicans embarking on their Benghazi investigation.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Speaker John Boehner talks on Capitol Hill in Washington Thursday about the special committee to investigate the 2012 attack on the US diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya.

Are House Republicans in danger of making the same mistake on Benghazi that House Republicans made on President Clinton's impeachment 16 years ago?

There's a poignancy to Monica Lewinsky bringing the politics of the late-1990s back into focus the same week House Republicans voted to create a special panel to investigate Benghazi.

Today, Republicans want to discover if the White House knowingly misled America about the causes of the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, and then attempted to cover its tracks. In 1998, Republicans had more to sink their teeth into – strong evidence that President Clinton had lied under oath about an affair with Ms. Lewinsky – and they pushed it farther, actually impeaching Mr. Clinton.

But it blew up in their faces. Hoping to strengthen their House majority in the midterm elections that year, Republicans instead lost seats, forcing House Speaker Newt Gingrich to resign.

Much is different this time around. The American economy is nowhere near what it was in the Roaring '90s, and because of that, President Obama is nowhere near as popular as Clinton was in Year 6 of his presidency. Moreover, Benghazi is about the death of four Americans, including the ambassador; the Lewinsky scandal was about an affair.

Yet the same political lessons remain, and the Lewinsky scandal in many ways cemented the rules of the D.C. scandal cycle since, according to a roundtable held by Politico. In short, if a scandal remains partisan, it won't amount to much for most Americans. 

"Big exposés that at one time would have been a big deal for weeks or months now kind of ricochet through the media spin cycle for a couple days and then recede," noted John Harris, who was a White House correspondent in 1998. "There's an assumption that a lot of inquiry and a lot of this sort of prosecutorial behavior in politics is not on the level."

For that reason, scandals are now seen overwhelmingly through a partisan lens, added Jeffrey Toobin, author of "A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President." That means, he said, "if it's just the other side complaining, it probably doesn't matter."

That dynamic played out dramatically only a few months ago. After the disastrous rollout of HealthCare.org, vulnerable Democrats in the Senate were, for a time, seen as considering withdrawing their support for Obamacare. Had things gotten significantly worse before they had gotten better, defectors could have put the law in serious jeopardy.

In many ways, Mr. Obama's top job was to keep his Democratic coalition from shattering. He did, and Obamacare survived.

It was the same in 1998, said Mr. Toobin in Politico. He said he remembered then-presidential adviser Rahm Emanuel "saying to me that all that matters in this process is that we keep the House Democrats, and as long as we keep the House Democrats we can portray this as the partisan vendetta that it is. The Republicans are essentially irrelevant to the process because the broader public will write them off, and I think that’s sort of how it turned out to be."

At this point, it appears that Benghazi is still "just the other side complaining."

In coming days, Democrats will decide whether to boycott the House panel. The biggest incentive to join would be to prevent former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton from getting trampled if she's called to testify. But the vast majority of Democrats feel no pressure to join the investigation.

Polls on the topic are squishy. While there is clear enthusiasm for a Benghazi investigation among the conservative base, the depth of support is less clear among other potential voting groups.

This could explain why House Speaker John Boehner chose carefully the Republicans who will sit on the panel. In an analysis by Roll Call, the operative phrase is "trusted by leadership."

Mr. Boehner didn't particularly want to convene this panel; his hand was forced when a conservative watchdog unearthed an important e-mail that the White House had refused to hand over to House investigators. So Job 1 for Boehner is to make sure this panel doesn't spiral out of control in a replay of 1998.

The Republicans already have all the built-in advantages in place for this fall: An unpopular president, a sluggish economy, and a slew of vulnerable Democratic candidates in the Senate. If the panel fires up the base, great. But if it backfires and angers the broader electorate, not great.

For now, Republicans seem in little danger of having Benghazi backfire. And if they were to find a truly damning piece of evidence, public ambivalence could shift dramatically.

Yet the lessons of 1998 will be looming, too, and Boehner will hope his young charges have learned something from the Lewinsky refresher course this past week.

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