For Both Parties, 1998 Midterms Offer a Lesson for '18
There are many similarities between the 1998 midterm election and this one 20 years later. As philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” For both parties, the parallel situations -- and pitfalls to possibly avoid – are worth studying.
Two decades ago, as is the case today, the president was being dogged by a special prosecutor and talk of impeachment was in the air, even as Americans enjoyed the benefits of a growing economy.
Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich built up expectations of a red wave in which the GOP would pick up between 10 to 40 seats, based heavily on Bill Clinton’s burgeoning scandals. In the end, however, Republicans lost five seats, narrowing their already slim majority to a 223-211 advantage. This was the first midterm since 1932 when the party controlling the White House added seats in the House. For several reasons, including the poor election results, Gingrich resigned from Congress less than a week after the election. By December 1998, the House Republicans went forward with the impeachment of Clinton and the Senate tried him on obstruction of justice and perjury charges.
The analogy is not exact since Republicans now control both houses of Congress and the presidency. But a key lesson from the 1998 election is that impeaching the president was not a decisive issue with most voters, one way or the other. In that booming economic climate, Clinton’s inappropriate behavior with a White House intern was secondary. Republicans who pushed scandal as a rationale for earning votes instead of a platform of ideas were misreading the public mood. And if anyone should have known better, it was that group of GOP members in Congress: What had propelled them into the majority in 1994 was a 10-point plan Gingrich had pushed called the “Contract With America.”
“We probably underestimated the need to really aggressively push a much stronger message about cutting taxes and saving Social Security, winning the war on drugs, reforming education and national defense,” Gingrich conceded in the aftermath of that election. “I totally underestimated the degree to which people would just get sick of 24-hour-a-day talk television and talk radio and then the degree to which this whole scandal became just sort of disgusting by sheer repetition.''
Is history repeating itself 20 years later?
Since Trump’s election, the Democrats have been the party of resistance with the priority of many activists being nothing less than his removal from office. This attitude, fueled by an aggressive special prosecutor who has targeted Trump, has carried over to the midterms. “This election will be a referendum on this president,” says Democratic mega-donor Tom Steyer, founder of an organization called Need to Impeach.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has been around long enough to know the pitfalls of that approach, and has tried, with mixed success, to tamp down impeachment talk among her members – and 2018 Democratic candidates.
“The Democrats are trying to have it both ways,” said Sarah Chamberlain, CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership. “Some are pushing the impeachment message, and some are not, which is different than in 1998 when the Republicans were all in on the impeachment message.”
In 1998, Republicans thought emphasizing Clinton’s behavior and impeachment would energized their base, while suppressing Democratic turnout. In the end, turnout was about normal. And once inside the voting booth, voters told exit pollsters, their vote wasn’t intended as a message on impeachment. Making matters worse for the GOP was that most voters said they were opposed to the impeachment effort and thought Congress should drop the matter entirely.
As with most elections, the top issue for voters in 1998 was the economy and national security. At the time, the economy was growing at over 4 percent, the job market was strong, the dot-com sector was booming, and Americans were not at war. Not sure how to run against a “peace and prosperity” message, many Republicans found it easier simply to attack Clinton’s ethics.
After the 1998 election returns were counted, Clinton called the results a vindication of his policies and reputation. ''If you look at all the results,'' he said, ''the American people want their business, their concerns, their children, their families, their future addressed here. That's what the message of the election was.''
In the end, the Republican message about Clinton’s behavior did not resonate with voters. In general elections, they want to know what you have done to deserve re-election and what you plan to do going forward.