A few of us on the left have been arguing that the current scandal-mania gripping the GOP risks bringing about a rerun of 1998, when the frenzy amid the Monica Lewinsky revelations led the GOP to overreach, resulting in backlash.
Now we have a longtime respected nonpartisan observer, Charlie Cook, arguing that this possibility is very real. Cook’s piece, entitled “Republicans’ hatred of Obama blinds them to public disinterest in scandals,” notes that the scandals have not moved the needle at all on Obama’s approval rating, just as happened in 1998:
The simple fact is that although the Republican sharks are circling, at least so far, there isn’t a trace of blood in the water…Maybe that will change. Maybe these allegations will start getting traction with voters. But it might just be that Americans are more focused on an economy that is gradually coming out of the longest and deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression. [...]
One wonders how long Republicans are going to bark up this tree, perhaps the wrong tree, while they ignore their own party’s problems, which were shown to be profound in the most recent elections. Clearly none of these recent issues has had a real impact on voters yet. Republicans seem to be betting everything on them, just as they did in 1998 — about which even Newt Gingrich (who was House speaker that year) commented recently to NPR, “I think we overreached in ’98.”
Republicans and conservatives who are so consumed by these “scandals” should ask themselves why, despite wall-to-wall media attention and the constant focus inside the Beltway — some are even talking about grounds for impeachment — Obama’s job-approval needle hasn’t moved…Clearly Republicans hope the public will begin to respond. But at what point do they decide that maybe voters might be more interested in other issues or worries than about politicians on one side pointing fingers and throwing allegations at those on the other side? At what point might the GOP conclude that it is just digging the hole a little deeper?
Cook wrote this before the release of today’s Washington Post poll, which actually confirms his diagnosis very neatly. The Post poll finds a majority believes the Obama administration is trying to “cover up” facts about the IRS scandal and that a plurality thinks it is trying to cover up Benghazi facts. These numbers are at odds with yesterday’s CNN poll, which found more Americans think Obama is being truthful. But that aside, in spite of these negative findings about the scandals, the Post poll also finds that Obama’s approval rating is holding steady, at 51 percent, and the economy may be the reason why: Majorities believe the economy is beginning to recover and are optimistic about where the economy will go in the next year.
More to the point, majorities believe Obama is focused on their problems, and Republicans aren’t — again confirming Cook’s diagnosis. Only 33 percent say Republicans are focused on things that are important to them, versus 60 percent who say they aren’t. By contrast, 51 percent say Obama is concentrating on things that are important to them.
Polls have shown that majorities take the scandals seriously, as well they should, at least in the cases of the IRS story and the Justice Department gathering of media phone records. But Republicans continue to talk about the scandals in ways that seem mainly tailored to Obama-hating base voters. Top Republicans have debuted a new talking point: That Obama has fostered a “culture of intimidation” that has led to the current scandals. It would be surprising if this resonates with the middle of the country. Indeed, the Post poll finds a majority, 54 percent, thinks the federal government is doing more to threaten the rights of average Americans than it’s doing to protect them. But Obama’s approval is still steady — including among moderates (58 percent). People aren’t connecting that idea to the President. Meanwhile, signs are mounting that the calls for impeachment may increase.
In a reference to 1998 GOP overreach, Cook concludes:
Republicans became so consumed by their hatred of Clinton and their conviction that this event would bring him down that they convinced themselves the rest of the country was just as outraged by his behavior as they were.
In the case of Obama, of course, his personal conduct is not at issue, and there is still no evidence that Republicans will be able to tie the current storylines directly to him. But the widespread conviction among Republican base voters that we’re seeing Watergate-level presidential wrongdoing will require that Republican officials keep chasing after evidence of it. It’s for these reasons that Democratic strategists are betting that GOP scandal overreach will play a key role in the 2014 elections.
We may be seeing a rerun of the 1990s in more ways than one.