Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California still appears to be on track to become the next speaker of the House. He did himself no favors this week, however, with some comments on the Benghazi investigation and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
McCarthy has been in apology mode the past few days after he told a Fox News program that since House Republicans had created the special committee to look into the 2012 terrorist attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, Clinton’s poll numbers have dropped.
McCarthy added, “Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened had we not fought and made it happen.”
'Partisan political exercise'
The Clinton campaign, congressional Democrats and even disenchanted Republicans quickly jumped all over McCarthy’s comments.
Clinton told MSNBC the comment “demonstrates unequivocally that this was always meant to be a partisan political exercise.” Some Democrats called for the special House committee to be disbanded, which was quickly rebuffed by Speaker John Boehner.
Clinton is scheduled to testify before the panel on October 22 and it is seen by many as a key test of her presidential campaign.
McCarthy has been busy trying to walk back his initial statement. He went back on Fox News to defend the work of the committee chaired by Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina.
“This committee was set up for one sole purpose — to find the truth on behalf of the families for four dead Americans,” a reference to those who died in the attacks, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens. “I did not intend to imply in any way that the work is political.”
It is a discordant note for McCarthy just as he is trying to build support among fellow Republicans to succeed Boehner as speaker.
Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz told CNN that McCarthy was “wrong” to “discredit the committee” and he urged him to apologize to the families because McCarthy’s initial statement “jeopardizes and trivializes” the committee’s work.
The incident has highlighted McCarthy’s tendency to be less than articulate at times, such as when he recently referenced his visits to “Poland, Hungria [sic], Estonia.”
Another complicating factor for McCarthy is that Chaffetz is one of two Republican House members whose names have come up as possible challengers for the speakership.
Three congressional aides who demanded anonymity told the Associated Press Chaffetz will run for the post. And Trey Gowdy is being urged by some conservative House colleagues to mount a challenge, although so far he shows little interest in doing so. Republicans are set to vote for a new leadership team next Thursday, and most analysts believe McCarthy remains the favorite.
Upcoming Benghazi showdown
Democrats see McCarthy’s gaffe as a potential boon for the Clinton presidential campaign, which has been fighting to move beyond the email controversy swirling around Clinton’s use of a private email account while secretary of state.
Analysts said McCarthy’s comments will allow Clinton to try and make the argument that the Benghazi committee was set up with one purpose in mind — to derail her presidential hopes.
And that could change the dynamic when Clinton testifies before the panel on October 22.
“A lot of Democrats are uneasy about Clinton because of the email issue and it evokes some of the old concerns about the Clintons and the degree to which they are targets of Republicans, the media and some of their own self-inflicted wounds,” said Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.
But Republican strategists still expect the House committee to grill Clinton about her handling of the aftermath of the Benghazi attacks.
“I think the optics of it could really be damaging to Hillary Clinton regardless of what comes out of that hearing,” said strategist Ford O’Connell.
But is there a danger Republicans could go too far?
“Oh, absolutely. They can overplay their hand.” He quickly added, “The Clinton camp likes to say that so far they [Republicans] are overplaying their hand on the email [controversy]. But so far, it’s working.”
Clinton has a big month ahead for her campaign. In addition to the Benghazi appearance late in the month, she will take part in the first Democratic candidates' debate on October 13 where she will face off against her main rival, Senator Bernie Sanders, and three other challengers.
Despite widespread speculation, it appears that Vice President Joe Biden will not take part in the first debate. Biden is not expected to decide on a presidential run until late October or early November.