By now, you’ve probably heard that South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy will head the newly-formed select committee to investigate the handling of the Benghazi attack. As a former district attorney, federal prosecutor, and member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, he is highly qualified. But here’s my concern: Optics — how will he play on television?
I’ve seen Rep. Gowdy on TV many times (as recently as last night), and he has never not looked like he wasn’t five seconds away from punching someone in the face. Now, I realize that what happened in Benghazi is deadly serious, and that demonstrating anger over it has a certain understandable appeal to the conservative base, and, frankly, you can’t blame him for being angry.
Having said that, this seems to be his general demeanor, regardless of the topic.
As such, should this high-profile position lead to Gowdy becoming the face of the Republican Party heading into the 2014 elections — which , I suppose, is a possibility — how will that (day in and day out) play with swing voters?
The odds seem decent that this gambit might backfire on Republicans, electorally.
Now, I realize it feels unseemly to discuss such political considerations — to inject “optics” — into a discussion about finally getting to the bottom of what happened in Benghazi.
But the reality is that while Rep. Gowdy may, in fact, be a terrific prosecutor, most Americans are more likely to judge this entire endeavor based on superficial appearance rather than on his words or facts. And what concerns me that Gowdy might be easily caricatured by the mainstream media filter — and that his grim visage might assist his adversaries in obstructing his evidence.
Maybe I’ll be proven wrong — it has happened before — but here’s my other concern: In a courtroom, jurors are instructed to pay attention to facts and evidence. They may even take notes. And they can be ordered to ignore some things ruled inadmissible. But voters and the general public are under no such compulsion. As such, the skills required to win a court case don’t necessarily reflect the skills required to win a public relations battle. And I suspect that in the modern media world, heading a high-profile select committee such as this, will require mastering the PR components as well as the legal ones.
Remember this: Even in 1998 — when Bill Clinton was impeached — Republicans lost seats as a result of their investigations (note: Clinton was impeached about a month after the midterm elections). The point here is that the public may punish you even if you can prove you are factually right. This isn’t logical, it just is.
Now, it may well be that getting to the bottom of what happened is worth whatever the price may be. Just be aware that there could be a cost attached to this — especially if it isn’t handled with kid gloves.
Having the proper evidence — having logic and the facts on your side — doesn’t necessarily translate to PR or electoral success. And I worry Republicans have elevated a guy highly skilled at winning arguments, but who may simultaneously fail at winning hearts and minds.