Bill Clinton is taking an increasingly important role in his wife’s presidential campaign. So now is a good time for Republicans to thank him for all that he’s done for their party.
Think about it. Bill Clinton was essential to the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994. If George H. W. Bush had pulled an upset in 1992, Republicans probably would have suffered the usual midterm losses for the president’s party. Instead, unified Democratic control of the federal government provided Newt Gingrich and his allies with a target-rich environment. Congressional Democrats blamed Clinton for blowing their 40-year reign over the House.
In 2000, Clinton helped elect George W. Bush. Before the election, political science forecasting models predicted that peace and prosperity would give the incumbent party an easy win. Indeed, people liked the apparent results of Clinton policies, even as the seeds of recession were sprouting below the ground, and the 9/11 hijackers were quietly starting their work. Yet voters disdained Clinton’s shiftiness. That “trust deficit” put a dead weight on Vice President Al Gore.
Even Clinton’s victories over the Republicans have left them with long-term benefits.
He twice shut down much of the government by vetoing spending measures that he did not like. Then he got the public to blame the Republicans. The backlash put the congressional GOP on the defensive and assured his reelection.
A dozen years later, memories of that showdown gave a psychological advantage to President Bush. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) told the St. Louis Post Dispatch why Bush prevailed in budget fights with the Democratic Congress: “In the end there was only one card that could be played: the Newt Gingrich government shut-down card. We were never going to let that happen, and the president knew it.”
In 1998, Clinton turned the impeachment battle against the Republicans, who unexpectedly lost seats in the midterm election. So when Dennis Kucinich introduced articles of impeachment against Dick Cheney, panicky House Democrats tried to kill the move. Republicans rattled them by trying to keep it alive. “Democrats don’t want to imitate the Republican effort to impeach Bill Clinton,” political scientist Larry Sabato told The Hill. “It backfired then and it would backfire now.”
Bill Clinton is the gift that keeps on giving. Exit polls identified two issues that wounded Republicans in 2006: Iraq and corruption. He muddies the Democratic message on both.
His false claim that he opposed the Iraq invasion only drew attention to his support for it. In fact, his words and deeds in office supplied President Bush with ample arguments for the war. “Regime change” was not a neoconservative concoction. It became official policy when President Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998. Several weeks later, he launched air strikes to “attack Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, and biological programs and its military capacity to threaten its neighbors.” Noting that Saddam Hussein had already used weapons of mass destruction, he stressed: “I have no doubt today, that left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will use these terrible weapons again.”
Clinton is also a walking reminder that Republicans have no patent on pay-to-play politics “I see the White House is like a subway,” Democratic fundraiser Johnny Chung said in 1997, “you have to put in coins to open the gates.” That quotation came up again this past fall, when Senator Hillary Clinton had to give back thousands in tainted contributions.
During the Lewinsky scandal, Bill Clinton got Democrats on record as saying that his Oval Office escapades were really no big deal. By lowering the morality standard, he gave some insulation to Republicans with imperfect private lives. Late in the 2003 California recall campaign, the Los Angeles Times reported on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s boorish behavior toward women. The state’s Democrats attacked him over the story, but since they had defended Clinton’s misconduct, they had zero credibility. We Californians laughed at their sudden moralizing as we gave Schwarzenegger a landslide victory.
Rudy Giuliani is probably aware of that story.
As the new year leads us to reflect on the past and the future, Republicans should ponder their debt to the former president. As a token of their appreciation, maybe they should send him a nice gift. I hear that he likes cigars.
– John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.