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Opinion: Columnists

GOP internal debate: Is party repeating mistakes of 1998?

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Politics,Opinion,Byron York,Columnists,Barack Obama,Bill Clinton,John Boehner,2014 Elections

For anyone who was around, it's hard to compare 1998 -- the year of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Starr Report, and Bill Clinton's impeachment -- with any other year. Yet there are reasons both Republicans and Democrats are thinking about 1998 as they head into this fall's elections.

It's the second midterm of a two-term Democratic president. Republicans scored a big victory in the president's first midterm but failed to stop his re-election bid. Now, the GOP is increasingly frustrated by the White House; there are accusations of lawlessness and rumors of impeachment. There's talk of making the midterms a referendum on the president.

That's what scares some Republican strategists. Back in 1998, there was an intense internal debate among Republicans over how much to make the midterms about President Bill Clinton. The strategists who favored attacking the president won the day, but in the end their strategy didn't work out. Now, there is an intense internal debate among Republicans over how much to make the 2014 midterms about President Barack Obama.

Of course, there were crazy circumstances in 1998. Bill Clinton, under investigation for all sorts of misdeeds, had been caught lying, both under oath and to the American people, about a sexual relationship with a White House intern. In September of '98, independent counsel Kenneth Starr sent a report to the GOP-controlled Congress that was essentially a road map for impeachment.

Congress followed the map. But before impeachment came the midterms. Many top Republicans felt that all GOP candidates had to do was run ads bashing Clinton and tying him to Democratic candidates. Victory would follow.

But other Republicans -- including some close to Rep. John Boehner, who at the time was still a relatively junior member of the House -- felt Republicans should campaign on their accomplishments since winning the majority in 1994.

"Boehner was of the opinion that we need to prove what we had done in the last four years as a majority," says one strategist involved in the discussions. "Unemployment going down, growth going up, the budget balanced." Republicans on Boehner's side put together a document known as "the playbook" to sketch out an issue-based campaign.

But the people who ran the party's central campaign apparatus had other ideas. They wanted a Clinton-focused campaign based on whether the scandal-plagued president should be "rewarded" with midterm victories. And that's what they got.

"In every election, there is a big question to think about," said one ad run by the National Republican Congressional Committee. "This year, the question is: Should we reward ... Bill Clinton? And should we reward not telling the truth?"

The Republican majority barely survived the election. Some top party strategists expected a GOP pickup of 20 seats in the House. Instead, Democrats picked up five seats, leaving Republicans still in charge but by the thinnest of margins.

Democrats had successfully argued that Republicans were so obsessed with getting Clinton that they weren't paying enough attention to the concerns of the American people.

Now, 16 years later, Republicans are again arguing among themselves. Of course, some circumstances are different; among other things, 1998 was a time of general prosperity and growth, Clinton's job approval rating was far higher than Obama's is today, and Obama hasn’t had an independent counsel building an impeachment case against him.

Still, the GOP base is infuriated with Obama, particularly his abuse of executive power. And although Speaker Boehner has shown zero interest in the topic, a few Republican lawmakers are mentioning impeachment. Some party veterans worry that an Obama-focused midterm campaign will yield the same lackluster results as 1998.

Of course, Democrats would love to see Republicans blow their own chances. From the White House down to the party fundraising machine, Democrats have been trolling 24-7 in a transparent effort to goad Republicans into a self-destructive impeachment attempt. "They are desperate to reprise '98," says the GOP veteran of his Democratic adversaries. "Not just impeachment, but this whole idea that we're going to make it all about the president again."

Dissatisfaction with Barack Obama will play a role in November. A president's job approval rating is a key factor in midterm results, and Obama's now stands at just under 42 percent in the RealClearPolitics average of polls. But voters know why they're unhappy with the president. They'd be more likely to vote for Republicans if they felt GOP candidates had a clear plan to address the problems, especially the economic woes, that still beset millions of Americans.

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Byron York

Chief Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner

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