Congressional Republicans had a nice, simple morality tale to tell. The main narrative was a little thin -- any story built around email server protocols is going to be dry -- but GOP lawmakers had clearly identified protagonists and antagonists. Just as importantly, they'd convinced much of the media that their tale was as important as it was riveting.
Today, however, Republicans lost the plot.
On Tuesday, FBI Director James Comey announced that while Hillary Clinton's email server protocols were careless, no sane prosecutor would find her actions worthy of an indictment. House Republicans, who were counting on an indictment to improve the GOP's election chances, were apoplectic and hastily threw together a hearing, forcing Comey to go to Capitol Hill to explain himself.
What Republicans didn't realize is the degree to which they were doing Clinton and Democrats a favor. NBC News reported on the proceedings:
FBI director James Comey stuck to his guns Thursday and defended his decision not to charge Hillary Clinton with a crime for her use of a private email server while serving as secretary of state. Summoned to appear before the Republican-led House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Comey insisted again that Clinton "did not break the law" and that there was not enough evidence to charge her with a crime. "That's just the way it is," Comey said.
I honestly have no idea what Republicans thought they were going to achieve with this spectacle. Did GOP lawmakers expect Comey to declare, "Now that you've yelled at me for a few hours, I've changed my mind and now support criminal charges against Clinton"?
Before the hearing Republicans had a series of fairly specific talking points: Clinton lied to the FBI; she created a national security threat; she plays by a different set of rules than everyone else. But instead of simply repeating those talking points, GOP lawmakers invited the FBI director -- a lifelong Republican, whom GOP officials have repeatedly praised for his honesty -- to testify about how wrong the party's arguments are.
"We have no basis to believe she lied to the FBI," Comey said. Asked about Clinton benefiting from a different set of rules, he responded, "It's not true." Asked about classified emails, Comey said there were only three messages -- each of which were not properly marked classified when she received them.
In other words, congressional Republicans had the bright idea of holding a hearing with a credible witness who was perfectly happy to explain to them how wrong they are.
Making matters worse, GOP lawmakers forgot who the villains and heroes were supposed to be in their story. Republicans were supposed to make Clinton the scoundrel of this narrative, but today, they decided instead to go after the director of the FBI -- because he had the audacity to say a Democrat didn't commit a crime.
But what's to be gained from going after Comey? The Washington Post's Greg Sargent noted during the Q&A that the hearing "was meant to be about Hillary," but it instead devolved to the point in which "Comey is angrily defending his integrity against conspiracy theories."
And that helps Republicans, how?
As if that weren't enough, note that on Tuesday, the story looked like Comey vs. Clinton -- the FBI director didn't think the Democratic candidate broke any laws, but he clearly wasn't pleased with some of her decisions, and he delivered a public rebuke. Now the story is Comey vs. Republicans -- GOP lawmakers had some baseless allegations and reckless conspiracy theories, some of which targeted Comey directly, and they asked the FBI director to give testimony knocking down each of their bad arguments.
For their part, Democrats suddenly found themselves keeping up with Republican attempts to change the subject -- talking about Clinton's emails is suddenly less important than talking about Comey's credibility and reliability.
When congressional Republicans take stock this evening and reflect on their failed gambit, one wonders whether they'll appreciate the fact that this Comey hearing was a bad plan, executed poorly. The last time Democrats were this pleased with GOP hearing, it was Clinton's 11-hour Benghazi Committee testimony -- in which Republicans made fools of themselves and their conspiracy theories, and Clinton turned her entire presidential campaign around.
It helps sometimes to be blessed with incompetent enemies.