From Henry Ford to Donald Trump, America has lionized business leaders (and shameless bankrupts) who disdain history. But almost as insidious are those politicians and pundits who oversimplify history. To update George Santayana: “Those who misremember the past are condemned to mangle the present.”
A current myth, often invoked by skittish Democrats, depicts the 1998 congressional elections as a plebiscite on Bill Clinton’s impending impeachment. In this common misinterpretation of history, a national voter rebellion punished Republicans across the political landscape for their frenzied fanaticism in trying to oust a president for lying about sex.
In reality, the 1998 elections were far more complicated than a didactic parable about the dangers to a political party in pursuing impeachment. Yes, the Democrats picked up five House seats—the only off-year gain for a presidential incumbent’s party since FDR in 1934. But even on Election Night as the votes came in, 1998 was described as a “Seinfeld election”—that is to say, an election about nothing.
I remember it that way, as well. What I recall from covering the only tight 1998 re-election fight, featuring a hang-him-high GOP member of the House Judiciary Committee, were not smoking guns or smoldering resentment of Clinton’s pursuers on Capitol Hill, but thick clouds of cigarette smoke.
An obligatory stop for two-term Republican incumbent Steve Chabot and his popular Democratic challenger, Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls, were the bingo parlors in neighborhoods like Mt. Airy. Circulating through rooms, whose air quality in the days before municipal bans effectively eliminate smoking in indoor public venues required a Hazmat suit, both candidates recognized that they were a minor attraction compared to shouts of “B-11” and “Bingo in the back.” As Qualls instructed an eager aide, “You don’t speak unless you’re spoken to. It’s not about handing out literature.”
The House race in this socially conservative district on the Ohio River was not about much of anything aside from government spending and abortion. Chabot, who is still in Congress, is a militant foe and Qualls stressed in a TV ad, “I am against partial-birth abortions.”
As for impeachment, both candidates downplayed the issue.
Qualls publicly dithered for two weeks before she reluctantly decided to greet Clinton at the airport when he flew in for a fundraiser. Even though Chabot voted in early October to launch a full impeachment inquiry in the Judiciary Committee, he told me a few weeks later, “I don’t think it’s a big factor in the race. It’s a local race. People know how different we are on the issues.” Qualls agreed, dismissing the idea of an impeachment referendum, “This doesn’t cut it as an issue.”
On November 3, Chabot won by a 53-47 percent margin, a result very close to his victory percentage in 1996, when Clinton cruised to re-election and his sexual behavior was not yet convulsing the political landscape.
If you squint at the national election returns hard enough, you can find an impeachment theme. New York Republican Senator Al D’Amato, who was obsessed with Clinton corruption, lost his bid for a third term to an ambitious Democratic congressman named Chuck Schumer. And in North Carolina, a boyish trial lawyer with jury-pleasing charm (John Edwards) knocked off Lauch Faircloth, a GOP senator who played a backstairs role in getting Kenneth Starr appointed as independent counsel.
The 1998 exit polls, though, told a different and more boring story. And it was not from lack of trying since the pollsters asked about impeachment three different ways—and got the same yawns and shrugs from the voters each time.
Asked what issue influenced their vote the most, just six percent said “the Clinton/Lewinsky matter.” In response to another question, 62 percent of the electorate answered that “Clinton was not a factor” in their choices—with the remaining voters split evenly about whether they were voting for or against the beleaguered president. Just to be sure, the exit polls also inquired whether the election was a “national referendum on whether Clinton should remain in office?” Once again, the results were unequivocal—63 percent said it was not an up-or-down vote on Clinton’s future.
If there was no great impeachment backlash, then why did the Democrats gain 1998 House seats as the Republicans were playing Inspector Javert?
Part of it was the Clinton conundrum: 57 percent of voters in the exit polls approved of his job as president while only 37 percent held a positive impression of him as a person. Democrats were also aided by the unpopularity of Clinton’s nemesis: House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who would step down four days after the election, only garnered 38 percent favorability in the exit polls.
What is also forgotten two decades later is what an optimistic moment 1998 was in American history. Unemployment was just above 4 percent, the budget was being balanced and Communism was defeated. Small wonder that 83 percent of the voters described the economy as “excellent” or “good” and 62 percent believed that the nation was moving in the right direction.
In short, the late 1990s are almost unrecognizable in contemporary terms. The exit polls provide a snapshot of the unbridgeable gap (despite Clinton’s “bridge to the twenty-first century” rhetoric) between then and now. In 1998, for example, only 40 percent of the voters reported that they used the Internet regularly.
Nobody needs expertise about the 1998 congressional campaigns to understand why the we’re-doomed-if-we-impeach argument does not stand up to historical scrutiny. In the hanging-chad 2000 election, George W. Bush paid no discernible political price for his party’s irrational exuberance in impeaching Clinton. In fact, Bush carried socially conservative states like Tennessee (Al Gore’s nominal home) and West Virginia (once so Democratic that it voted for Michael Dukakis 1988) in part because of voter disgust with Clinton’s conduct.
Other arguments against the House Judiciary Committee launching an impeachment inquiry come across as equally specious. Does Nancy Pelosi really believe that the voting record of House Democrats will dominate the national debate in 2020 with Trump on the ballot? And with Trump constantly claiming to be the most martyred figure since the crucifixion, it is ludicrous to believe that he will not be reveling in his vindication regardless of whether the Judiciary Committee backs down on impeachment or Senate Republicans acquit him for “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Invoking the supposed Republican political folly in
1998 lends a misleading aura of historical wisdom to the anti-impeachment case that
tactical arguments lack. If House Democrats
must premise their next steps on prior events, try the post-Watergate elections
of 1974 (in which Democrats gained 48 House seats) and 1976 (in which the party elected a little-known former
governor of Georgia president). Or, better yet, the Democrats should recognize that no historical precedents can prepare them for a world in which a lawless
carnival-barker cum real-estate hustler has been entrusted with the codes to