Republican overreach and the lessons of ’98


    Republicans currently in thrall to the scandal trifecta would be wise to heed Newt Gingrich, who knows all too well what can happen when party warriors foam at the mouth.

    “I think we overreached in ’98,” he told NPR the other day. Elsewhere, he said: “If we had been calmer and more focused, we would have done better.” He was referring, of course, to the Clinton impeachment farce. As House Speaker, he helmed the effort to eject Bill from office. But when the dust cleared, when the public essentially told Republicans that their crusade was idiotic, Newt’s elective career was over.

    He’s not the only Republican pleading for sanity. Strategist John Feehery, who served 15 years as a House Republican aide, warned last night that the party’s current focus on scandal is an “artificial sugar high” that “could be a loser politically for the GOP” – just as it was in 1998. Republicans can’t just obsess over Obama, he said. They need to articulate a positive legislative agenda, he said. They need to demonstrate that they can “walk and chew gum at the same time” – which they also failed to do in 1998.

    But that basic task may be too much to ask. To fully appreciate the current obsessive mentality, check out the letter released last Thursday by Heritage Action for America, the political activist wing of the conservative Heritage Foundation. The letter was sent to the GOP leaders on Capitol Hill. The key paragraph:

    “Recent events have rightly focused the nation’s attention squarely on the actions of the Obama administration. It is incumbent upon the House of Representatives to conduct oversight hearings on those actions, but it would be imprudent to do anything that shifts the focus from the Obama administration to the ideological differences within the House Republican Conference.” (Italics are mine.)

    That says it all. Conservatives know darn well that unless they can keep stoking scandal mania, people might start paying more attention to the GOP’s fundamental “ideological differences.” Like the fact that the right-wing base is warring with the party establishment over immigration reform. Indeed, Feehery rightly insisted that if the Republicans “want to be competitive in future national elections,” they need to enact immigration reform. He said that scandal mania won’t help the GOP move beyond its “fairly narrow constituency.”

    Which brings us to 1998 – the year of Monica Lewinsky, the year when Clinton-obsessed Republicans repeatedly refused to heed public opinion. Americans basically said, in poll after poll, that Clinton was wrong to canoodle with Monica, and that he was wrong to lie about it – but that his behavior did not warrant removal from office. As the midterm elections drew closer, two-thirds of Ameicans said they opposed impeachment.

    But Newt didn’t listen. He said that Republicans didn’t need to sell positive agenda; he said that if they banged on the scandal 24/7, they’d pick up 40 to 50 House seats. He vowed to lead the charge, declaring that he would “never again, as long as I am speaker, make a speech without commenting on the topic.”

    The result: Republicans wound up losing five House seats. In the exit polls, 63 percent of the midterm voters said they opposed impeachment. Newt quit the speakership; shortly thereafter, he quit his House seat. And Republicans woke up to the shock of their miscalculation. Strategist-lobbyist Vin Weber told CNN, “We didn’t run on a substantive agenda.” Another strategist, Mark Miller, told me at the time: “We’re in this situation because we decided…to elevate ‘impeach, impeach, impeach’ into a central message. We politicized our constitutional duty, and that’s why we lost at the polls.”

    Are today’s Republicans too dense to learn from history? Can the sane ones successfully hose down their unhinged brethren? People like Michele Bachmann are saying stuff like this: “There isn’t a weekend that hasn’t gone by that someone says to me, ‘Michele, what in the world are you all waiting for in Congress? Why aren’t you impeaching the president?'” (It’s miraculous how politicians always manage to cojure a John Q. Citizen who perfectly expresses what the politician already believes.)

    And yet again, a la 1998, Americans are repeatedly warning Republicans that scandal mania is a political loser. Last Friday, the Gallup tracking poll found that after a week of scandal, Obama’s popularity had slightly risen (50 percent favorable, 43 percent not). On Sunday, the CNN-ORC poll reported a 53 percent favorability rating – a two-percent rise from April. The new ABC News-Washington Post poll puts Obama in positive territory, 51-44, which means he’s “holding steady” in the wake of the scandal stories. And, perhaps most tellingly, the new Pew poll reports that barely 25 percent of Americans are paying close attention to the scandals.

    Of course Americans are troubled by the scandal stories, particularly those regarding the IRS. But they also recognize – this may be a shock to Republicans – that other stuff is going on as well. Like the fact that Republicans are disconnected from everyday concerns (in the new ABC-Post poll, only 33 percent say that the GOP is focused on issues that affect people personally). Or the fact that consumer confidence is currently at a six-year high, that the Dow is at an all-time high, and that housing prices have rebounded to a seven-year-high.

    All of which explains why saner Republicans are urging their colleagues to curb the craziness. GOP chairman Reince Priebus put it this way the other day: “If we present ourselves to the American people as intelligent, we’re going to be in a great place.”

    A fine sentiment indeed. But yesterday, as that killer tornado wrecked fatal havoc, I saw this tweet from conservative firebrand Erick Erickson: “I wonder when President Obama will find out about Oklahoma.”

    See the problem?


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1


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