The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Are Republicans falling in the same traps they did in 1998?

Growing evidence shows that the GOP strategy of playing to their base is alienating many voters

President Bill Clinton listens as House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks on budget talks before their session with Congress in 1995. (Keith Jenkins/The Washington Post)
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Democrats have newfound hope for November. The Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which ended the constitutional right to abortion, along with the passage of major pieces of President Biden’s economic agenda and falling gas prices, have temporarily buoyed their spirits about the upcoming midterm elections. Pat Ryan’s victory in an Aug. 23 special election in a swing district in New York — after a campaign in which he focused on protecting abortion rights — suggests that those hopes are not misplaced.

Yet Democrats still face enormous challenges. Not only does the party that controls the White House almost always lose seats in the midterms, but President Biden’s low approval ratings, along with high inflation, give the GOP a clear edge. The 1998 midterms, however, indicate that Democrats have a secret weapon that could have a dramatic impact: Republican extremism.

That year, Republicans chose to stoke the anger of their right-wing base and impeach President Bill Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky, ignoring polls that showed an overwhelming majority of Americans wanted Clinton to remain in office. They are making similar mistakes this year. In 1998, Republicans were trying to remove a democratically elected president for lying about a private matter. This time, they are defending Donald Trump, a twice-impeached ex-president who denies the results of a legitimate election, who encouraged a violent mob to descend upon the Capitol to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power, and who now appears to have kept classified documents in violation of the law. They’ve also adopted extreme positions on cultural issues, especially abortion, that defy the opinion of clear majorities of Americans. In other words, then and now, Republicans are choosing political partisanship over democratic fairness — though it remains to be seen if the outcomes will be the same.

Many conservatives hated Clinton because they saw him as the embodiment of the countercultural values that emerged from the Left during the 1960s. He smoked marijuana, dodged the draft, married a feminist and appointed members of the LGBTQ community to high-level positions. They couldn’t believe he won twice, and that was before they found out in early 1998 that he had an affair with a young White House intern. The conservative White Christians, largely Southern, who dominated the GOP viewed the affair through the lens of morality. They were determined to punish Clinton and purge the values that he represented from government.

Even so, they tried to cloak this motive and focus the impeachment debate on the rule of law, specifically lying under oath. But this tactic didn’t work — for most Americans the debate was all about sex.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who led the successful Republican Revolution in the 1994 midterm elections, allowed his disdain for the president to override his better political instincts. Convinced that the Lewinsky affair would bring about the end of the Clinton presidency, Gingrich ordered the release of the sexually explicit Starr Report, prepared by special counsel Kenneth Starr, which spelled out the sordid details of the affair. He then demanded that the House Judiciary Committee not limit its impeachment inquiry to the Starr Report but include all of Clinton’s other “scandals” from Whitewater to Travelgate — allegations voters had already decided in 1996 weren’t reasons to remove Clinton from office. Although Starr, too, found no evidence of wrongdoing on any of these issues, Gingrich refused to let go.

Gingrich was confident that the Lewinsky affair signaled a Republican windfall that needed to be exploited before the fall elections. At the very least, the scandal would so dispirit Democrats that they would stay home. At best, it would produce a backlash that would push angry Democrats to vote for Republicans. In addition, Gingrich believed that the Starr Report would incite outrage among Christian conservatives and drive them to the polls in record numbers. “When things happen that make one side’s partisans unhappy, they stay home. When they stay home, they stay home for the whole ticket,” Gingrich told a crowd of Young Republicans in suburban Atlanta. “I believe this fall we’re going to see a surprisingly big Republican victory almost everywhere in this country.”

Instead, the Starr Report bolstered Clinton’s already formidable approval ratings — as high as 68 percent in one CBS survey. Since the report focused so clearly on his extramarital affair, it only seemed to confirm for Americans that his transgressions were related to his personal life, not his job as president. Polls showed that a majority of the public supported the House voting to censure the president — in effect, voting to condemn his actions — as opposed to impeachment, which was opposite of the GOP’s strategy.

Yet Gingrich ignored this polling, certain that his political calculus would play well with voters. A few days before the election, he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “If everything breaks against us, my guess is we’ll be about plus 10. If everything breaks for us, we’ll be much closer to plus 40.” According to James Rogan, a Republican member of the Judiciary Committee, “Gingrich was telling us in October that we would pick up twenty or thirty seats — plus. We were going to come back with a windfall of seats.” As late as the afternoon of Election Day, Gingrich continued to foresee a gain of 20 seats.

He could not have been more wrong. Instead, Republicans lost five seats in the House and made no gains in the Senate, making them the first party since the Civil War to lose seats to the party of an incumbent president in his second midterm election.

Republicans quickly turned on Gingrich, forcing him to step down as speaker only days after the crushing defeat.

Even so, Gingrich and his colleagues could not bring themselves to change course. He admitted to Clinton’s chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, that the election results sent a clear signal that the public did not want to see a prolonged impeachment trial. Despite that acknowledgment, Gingrich still blazed ahead with an impeachment vote. When asked why, he responded: “Because we can.”

While Gingrich managed to secure majorities on two impeachment counts by denying more moderate members of his caucus the option to vote for censure, the Senate came nowhere close to convicting Clinton and removing him from office. Instead, the president again emerged from the proceedings relatively unscathed — despite plenty of Americans finding his behavior unsavory — while Republicans simply looked mean-spirited and bitter. Ultimately, Gingrich ended up saving Clinton’s presidency by trying to destroy it.

Today, there are similar warning signs that Republicans are once again pursuing a risky strategy of thumbing their noses at public opinion. Despite the daily trickle of damaging evidence from the Jan. 6 committee about Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, his brazen refusal to turn over classified documents after his presidency and his verbal assaults against members of the FBI, the vast majority of Republican leaders remain blindly loyal to him. White Christian conservatives, who make up the party’s base, demand such fidelity — just as they demanded Clinton face consequences in 1998.

And growing evidence shows that today, just as in 1998, the Republican strategy of playing to their base is alienating many voters. According to a recent NBC News poll, despite GOP complaints of “witch hunts,” a clear majority of voters want the many investigations into Trump to continue. The survey also revealed that Americans now consider “threats to democracy” a higher priority than inflation — a wake-up call for Republicans who believe that inflation is their key to regaining power. In many states, Republican governors have also plunged ahead with abortion bans with no exceptions, even for rape and incest, despite polls showing strong majorities that want abortion to be legal in many circumstances.

The past is not often a good predictor of the future, and there is no doubt that Democrats face an uphill battle to retain control of the House. In 1998 they had a popular president, prosperity and peace on their side. Not this year. They can only hope that, as in 1998, voters will see through the GOP’s extremism and reject those leaders following in Gingrich’s footsteps.

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