As multiple scandals have simultaneously engulfed the Obama administration, a number of political observers have cautioned Republicans against overreaching. Liberal blogger Greg Sargent writes over at the Washington Post 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.” Charlie Cook reaches a similar conclusion:
Red-faced Republicans, circling and preparing to pounce on a second-term Democratic president they loathe, do not respect, and certainly do not fear. Sound familiar? Perhaps reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s second term, after the Monica Lewinsky story broke? During that time, 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.
Though there are some lessons from the 1998 experience, there are also important distinctions.
1) Clinton’s scandal involved sex
Without re-litigating the entire impeachment debate, it’s fair to say that Clinton’s scandal revolved around his sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. This made it a lot easier for Clinton to appeal to Americans’ sense of forgiveness and portray political opponents as prying into his personal life as opposed to dealing with the nation’s problems. In contrast, though both sides debate Obama’s culpability, the issues at the heart of the current scandals are all very serious — dealing with a terrorist attack on a U.S. ambassador, IRS targeting ideological groups of a certain stripe and the Department of Justice spying on journalists. According to a CNN poll released Sunday, “Americans appear to be taking all three controversies very seriously, with 55% saying the IRS and Benghazi matters are very important to the nation and 53% saying the same thing about the AP case.” So, it’s harder to put Republicans on the defensive for investigating these issues than it was to attack the 1998 GOP for expending so much effort investigating Clinton for lying about oral sex.
2) Clinton was more popular than Obama
In the first quarter of his second term, Clinton’s approval rating averaged 57.5 percent in Gallup surveys, whereas, Obama’s approval rating averaged 49.7 percent — the lowest among post-WW II presidents who were reelected, slightly worse than George W. Bush. So, Clinton was already starting from a better political position than Obama.
3) The economy was a lot better in 1998 than it is today
There are a number of economic indicators showing gradual improvement in the U.S. economy, but it’s nowhere near as robust as it was during the comparable period in Clinton’s presidency. In 1998, for instance, unemployment was historically low, ranging from 4.3 percent to 4.7 percent. Though the unemployment rate has declined, it is still at 7.5 percent.
4) Obamacare was not being implemented in 1998
Next year’s implementation of Obamacare, which even one of its main authors, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, has warned could be a “train wreck,” could compound any political problems resulting from the recent run of scandals. Clinton did not have to deal with such a major and contentious implementation.
5) Republicans have the benefit of the memory of 1998
Today’s Republicans have the memory of the 1990s in mind. Just as the current House Republican leaders didn’t ultimately allow government to shut down, it’s unlikely that they’d pursue impeachment against Obama without much stronger evidence linking him to the scandals. More likely, Republicans will hold a lot of Congressional hearings and issue a number of reports related to these scandals, but will stop short of impeachment. And at least so far, this strategy seems to be working. To put it more carefully, if it hasn’t eroded Obama’s approval ratings, it certainly hasn’t hurt Republicans. According to the same CNN poll cited above, majorities believe that the GOP has acted appropriately in the way it has handled the Benghazi, IRS and DOJ scandals.
The editors of National Review make a fair point when they write of the lessons from 1998: “The Republicans that year did not really run on a promise to remove Clinton from office — or on any other agenda. Their strategy was to assume that the scandal would redound to their benefit, and that they merely had to sit back and let victory rain o’er them. It didn’t.” I’d associate myself with the view that Republicans shouldn’t allow the current slate of scandals to prevent them from developing an affirmative policy agenda. But on the flip side, I see a risk that liberals buy into the “GOP overreach” narrative and assume that Republican focus on the scandals will backfire to the benefit of Democrats, only to be disappointed come fall of 2014.