Was I Wrong About Kevin McCarthy and Benghazi?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last week, after presumptive Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy committed an alleged Kinsley gaffe by saying the House Benghazi committee had successfully damaged Hillary Clinton’s standing, I was skeptical of the real impact:

Deeming this a Kinsley gaffe requires that the truth that is revealed be new, and that there be someone surprised by it. So here’s the question: Are there people who didn’t think the Benghazi committee was designed from the start, at least in large part, to deflate Clinton?

Alan Pyke and Oliver Willis accused me of membership in the “Church of the Savvy,” Jay Rosen’s derisive term for the Washington consensus that presumes to know what is and isn’t news. By insisting there was nothing to see here, I was discounting the idea that this might be news to people—and was insulting my readers.

Maybe so, maybe not. I felt it would be less respectful of readers to try to disingenuously argue something I didn’t believe—that this was Big News. Like all right-thinking people, I of course deplore the Church of the Savvy. (I don’t even live in the Beltway!) But in this case, I felt, again like all right-thinking people, that it was wise to remain skeptical until proven otherwise. My argument was also premised on the idea that the people who would hear and understand McCarthy’s remark were ones who were already tuned into the Benghazi investigation. My open invitation to anyone who heard and was shocked by McCarthy’s “admission” (which he insists was not one) to contact me remains open—and thus far unanswered.

The better case that I was wrong actually comes from the Republicans themselves. They’ve been scrambling to walk back McCarthy’s comments, and he’s drawn a new challenger in Representative Jason Chaffetz, who took a shot at McCarthy’s verbal missteps shortly after announcing he’d run for the top House job. “You want a speaker who speaks,” he said.

But now there’s another way to test whether this gaffe plays outside the Beltway or not. Clinton has cut an advertisement based on McCarthy’s remarks, which will air on CNN and MSNBC soon. If the ad changes hearts and minds, it would suggest I was wrong about the gravity of McCarthy’s slip, and I will have to make public my apostasy in the Church: