Monday, May 20, 2013

The forgotten lesson from the Clinton impeachment and the 1998 midterms

Ramesh Ponnuru explains why the trifecta of ongoing news stories that are widely seen as harmful to President Obama (Benghazi, IRS, and Associated Press) might not help Republicans in the midterm elections:

The biggest danger for Republicans in giving themselves over to scandal mania is one that the conventional retelling of the Clinton impeachment neglects. Republicans didn’t lose seats simply because they overreached on Clinton’s perjury. It is true that his impeachment was unpopular, and public approval of the Republicans sank as they pursued it. Still, only 5 percent of voters in the 1998 election told exit pollsters that the scandal had played a role in their decision, and Republicans got a majority of those voters.

Social Security was the top issue for more than twice as many voters, and Republicans lost that issue by 18 percentage points. Even more voters cared about education, which Republicans lost by 34 points. They lost on health care and the economy by similar margins.

For the most part, Republicans didn’t campaign on impeachment in 1998: They didn’t say, “Vote for me and I’ll do my level best to oust Clinton.” Their strategy was more passive. They were counting on the scandal to motivate conservatives to vote while demoralizing liberals. So they didn’t try to devise a popular agenda, or to make their existing positions less unpopular. That’s what cost them -- that, and the mistake of counting on statistics about sixth-year elections, which also bred complacency.

Republicans have similar vulnerabilities on the issues now. They have no real health-care agenda. Voters don’t trust them to look out for middle-class economic interests. Republicans are confused and divided about how to solve the party’s problems. What they can do is unite in opposition to the Obama administration’s scandals and mistakes. So that’s what they’re doing. They’re trying to win news cycles when they need votes.

Congressional Republicans were right to press for hearings on all of these issues. But investigations of the administration won’t supply them with ideas. They won’t make the public trust Republicans. They won’t save them from themselves.