Bill Clinton is having deja vu.
The former president accused Republicans last week of targeting his wife with the same playbook they used against him in the 1990s. And the comparison has merit.
In both the Whitewater investigation of then-president Clinton and the House Select Committee on Benghazi’s investigation into former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Republicans spent millions of dollars on prolonged, partisan probes that failed to fulfill their original purpose. However, in both cases the investigators' aggressive tactics led them to discover damaging information unrelated to the initial inquiry, which the GOP then used as ammunition for political attacks.
In this way, the investigations have managed to tarnish the credibility of their targets, even without achieving their stated goals. The two cases show that no matter how an investigation's original question is resolved, with enough time and resources it will almost inevitably turn up a different scandal.
The Republican-led investigation of the president's potential financial malfeasance related to the Whitewater land deal failed to produce a single indictment of Clinton. But over the course of eight years, the $70 million probe was able to unearth the unrelated Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, which resulted in Clinton’s impeachment in 1999.
Whitewater Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr's probe was more brazen than House Republicans’ ongoing quest to find Clinton's wife guilty of wrongdoing in the 2012 Benghazi attack. Unlike the Benghazi committee, which discovered the private email server inadvertently, Starr chose to broaden the scope of the Whitewater probe specifically to examine the Lewinsky affair. And the mere fact that the president faced a special prosecutor -- albeit of his own appointing -- shows that he was under more serious scrutiny.
Still, there are striking similarities between that investigation and the Benghazi probe. As of the end of August, the Benghazi committee had spent nearly $2.5 million in 2015 alone investigating claims about the Obama administration's conduct that have already been more or less dispelled by eight congressional reports and a report by an independent State Department review board. (The committee’s Democratic members estimate that the total cost of the probe since its inception in May 2014 is closer to $4.6 million.)
Rather than any misconduct related to the attacks, the most important finding of the Benghazi committee has been its discovery in February that Clinton used a private email server while serving as secretary of state. The server revelation has prompted an FBI investigation into whether any State Department staff knowingly sent classified information to Clinton's email address, and been a major drag on her presidential candidacy.
Senate Democratic leaders called on House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) this week to disband the Benghazi committee after House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) praised the panel for hurting Clinton’s poll numbers. McCarthy, Boehner’s likely successor as speaker, said on Tuesday that Clinton would not have sustained the political damage from the email scandal “had we not fought to make that happen” by convening the Benghazi committee.
Jamal Ware, communications director for the Republican majority on the committee, denied allegations that panel is engaged in a political witch hunt.
“People view the Benghazi Committee through whatever lens or spin they choose, meanwhile, the Benghazi Committee is focused on, and our work is driven, by the facts,” he said in an email Wednesday. Ware noted that just four of the committee’s 50 interviews so far have been with people connected to Clinton.
Regardless of the committee's intentions, historians see parallels in the way Republicans have used aggressive investigations of both Clintons for political benefit.
Both Whitewater and Benghazi are “investigations that broaden, become more expansive, and consume a huge amount of time and energy,” said Julian Zelizer, a historian of American politics at Princeton. “Just as important, both scandals allowed the Clintons’ opponents to paint them as untrustworthy and unethical.”
Zelizer added that both have been “great ways to mobilize” Clinton opponents “from the grassroots to Washington.”
Gil Troy, a history professor at McGill University and author of the forthcoming book The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, argues that the two investigations and subsequent controversies illustrate both a tendency by the Clintons to engage in “ethically questionable, borderline misdemeanors,” as well as the overreaction of Republicans, who treat the couple's every misstep as a “major assault on the Constitution.”
The greater zeal with which Republicans pursued the president in the 1990s was actually a political boon for him in the short run. Democrats won five House seats in the 1998 midterm elections, becoming the first party in control of the White House to gain House seats in an off-year since 1934. And after the House impeached Clinton in December 1998, his approval rating jumped 10 points -- to 73 percent.
“Clinton made two arguments that resonated: One, I am doing my job and these are all intrusions into my job,” Troy said. “And two, wouldn’t a multimillion-dollar investigation by some of the country’s best lawyers be able to find some mistakes by any one of us?”
It did not hurt that the economy was booming, Troy added.
Clinton's wife has, thus far, not been so lucky in weathering the email scandal. Her support among Democratic voters has fallen 21 points since July, to 42 percent.
Some of that may be out of her control. The former secretary of state's private email account evokes “fears about secrecy in government that go beyond Clinton, the Democrats and the GOP,” Zelizer said. “Unlike Whitewater, this taps directly into a bigger issue with the post-9/11 national security state, where people don't trust the government and often fear that what they hear is not what politicians actually do."
But if this Clinton scandal continues to go the way the Whitewater-Lewinsky investigation did in the 1990s, the American public, once again, will have little to gain.
“Watergate was a necessary cleansing, but Whitewater-Lewinsky just undermined American faith in government at a time of what appeared to be peace and prosperity,” Troy said. “Both sides shoot each other and the great victim is American faith in politics.”
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