The lessons of '98



It took some digging this week, but I finally found a rare Republican lawmaker who is apparently capable of assessing the current political climate, and the reality of health reform, without his head exploding.

Unlike so many of his party brethren, who seem to think they can retake Congress in November simply by banging on Barack Obama and bellowing about "repeal," New York congressman Peter King surfaced on Don Imus' morning show to offer a few words of wisdom. He said: "We Republicans, we can't just pile on (and) just say 'we're going to repeal'....We also have to avoid demonizing. Republicans tried that with Bill Clinton in 1998 during the whole Monica Lewinsky affair, and we ended up losing seats."

Finally. I'd been waiting, seemingly in vain, for a Republican with an ounce of historical perspective to bring up the cautionary lessons of 1998. Unlike so many of his amnesiac or clueless colleagues, King actually remembers what happened. He didn't fill in the details during his Imus gig, so I'll do the honors:

After President Clinton was outed in '98 for his trysts with the intern - and particularly after he confessed the truth in August - House Republican strategists were convinced that they'd rack up victories in November simply by running against the scandal. House Speaker Newt Gingrich predicted a pickup of 40 seats. He didn't see the need for any affirmative Republican agenda; he thought the scandal, and the GOP push for impeachment, would suffice. In fact, that spring he declared that he would "never again, as long as I am speaker, make a speech without commenting on the topic." And during the final week of the '98 election season, he approved a blitz of anti-scandal TV ads in 30 key House districts.

Well, the House Republicans never did pick up the 40 seats that Newt envisioned. Or 30 seats. Or 20. Or 10. Turned out, the Republicans lost five seats.

This was an historic embarrassment - and an historic win for Clinton's Democrats. As I reported at the time, "a president's party had not gained House seats in the sixth year of a president's tenure since 1822."

During the '98 postmortems, top Republicans lamented their mistakes; lobbyist/strategist Vin Weber told CNN, "The problem was, we didn't run on a substantive agenda." Indeed, the political fallout was so toxic that not only did Gingrich quit as speaker, he quit his seat as well. One GOP strategist, Jay Severin, suggested that Republican should "take Newt's belt and shoelaces away from him."

By the way, this is the same Newt who today is insisting that Republicans run this fall on a repeal platform ("Together we will pledge to repeal this bill and start over. Together we will prove that this will not stand").

And there's another noteworthy angle on '98:

It's fascinating to hear the current Republicans complain about how the majority party has jammed/rammed health care reform down our throats in defiance of "the will of the people" - given the fact that, in 1998, the Republicans wielded "impeach Clinton" as a campaign issue, despite ample evidence that they were willfully defying "the will of the people."

During the '98 autumn campaign season, the people repeatedly signaled their disinterest in impeaching the president. Right after special prosecutor Ken Starr's scandal report was released in September, 59 percent of Americans told national pollsters that they approved of Clinton's job performance, and, on a separate question, 64 percent opposed impeachment. A month later, Clinton's job approval rating stood at 65 percent, and 62 percent opposed impeachment. But the Republicans paid no heed to the people's will - which surfaced again in the exit polls on election day, when 63 percent said they opposed impeachment.

For Republicans, the biggest lesson of '98 is that there are risks in playing only to the conservative case. They defied "the will of the people," deciding that it was only important to stoke the sentiments of their most devoted voters. The base wanted to see Clinton impeached, hence the scandal-centric campaign strategy. And the party wound up paying an historic price in November.

Today's Republicans are preparing to stump this fall for health reform repeal (excuse me, "repeal and replace," which presumably refers to the reform ideas that they had zero interest in pushing when they ran Washington). They claim that their repeal slogan broadly reflects the people's will (actually, it's impossible to know whether this will be true seven months hence); far more significantly, they know full well that repeal is the stance of choice within the conservative base.

Republican leaders are talking up repeal because they want to ensure that the tea-party faction is stoked to vote. Republican leaders are fuming irrationally about "Armageddon," and about how Obama has purportedly betrayed his oath, because they know that the tea-party faction responds to raw meat. The big question - as Peter King suggested - is whether the care and feeding of the base, and the politics of demonization, will be enough to ensure success in November.