Editor’s note: This piece by Ramesh Ponnuru appeared in the February 8, 1999, issue of National Review.
Ordinarily it’s safe to ignore the Washington Post and the New York Times when they profess grave concern for the health of the Republican party. That will be the reaction of most conservatives to this season’s mantra: The GOP is endangering its prospects in 2000, and maybe even beyond, by trying to remove Bill Clinton from office. But this time, the conventional wisdom may be right.
Republicans seem remarkably unalarmed. GOP consultant Don Fierce says, “I haven’t heard anybody say we shouldn’t have [impeached Clinton in the House] because our approval rating has fallen. They’re proud of what they did, they feel they’ve done the right thing.” And they don’t accept the media line that impeachment hurt them in the November elections.
The Republicans’ disappointing showing demonstrated that the public was insufficiently outraged to repudiate Clinton, not that he has its active support. According to the Voter News Service, Republicans took a slight majority of the 5 percent of the electorate that voted on the Lewinsky scandal. Republicans argue that they were hurt less by their position on impeachment than by their overidentification with it: They hadn’t developed an agenda, believing they didn’t need one to bring conservatives to the voting booth. (The scandal also kept Democrats from capitalizing on their agenda, but never mind.) So far, so plausible. But the fact that Republicans haven’t yet paid a price for impeaching Clinton doesn’t mean the bill won’t come due in 2000. The GOP’s public-approval ratings have fallen to 36 percent-its lowest in fourteen years- since the Starr report was sent to Congress. A CBS-New York Times poll finds that, of the quarter of Republicans who disapprove of impeachment, half now hold an unfavorable view of their own party and a favorable one of the Democrats.
Why did the image of Republicans take such a beating from impeachment? The airing of the videotape of Clinton’s grand-jury testimony was a turning point. Even though Republicans never made a conscious decision to air it-a large bipartisan majority of the House had voted to release everything, and Republicans merely voted not to exempt it-the public reaction was to sympathize with Clinton against the prosecutors and the Republicans, who appeared to be ganging up to humiliate him.
The appearance of partisanship also hurt, though it was impossible to avoid. Republicans found themselves in a series of Catch-22s. If they didn’t invite Starr to testify, Democrats would accuse them of protecting him from legitimate inquiries. If they invited Starr and nobody else, Democrats would accuse them of presenting one side of the story. And if they invited other witnesses, too, they would be accused of dragging out the process. The Democrats’ strategy was easy to implement. They could disrupt the process and call it chaotic; they could make it partisan simply by calling it that. “They showed up with orange hair and floppy shoes and complained about what a circus this had become,” says GOP strategist Ed Gillespie.
Republicans, however, never had a coherent message on impeachment. For most of 1998, they were silent. Trent Lott had set the pattern by refusing to mention the scandal in his response to the State of the Union address and thus validating Clinton’s framing of it as a private matter. When the House inquiry began, nobody effectively explained the fairness of the procedures. Conservatives wanted to talk about the substance of Clinton’s crimes instead, while the National Republican Congressional Committee rejected a suggestion that it organize a “war room” of communications strategists to defend the House investigation.
Not until late October did Republicans try to make impeachment a political issue, and then only in the low sense of “political.” They ran ads that played on distrust of Clinton but mentioned neither impeachment nor perjury. The ads were too carefully calibrated to have much effect, GOP pollster John McLaughlin found in an Election Night survey-except to generate news about how Republicans were exploiting the scandal. Which, in fact, they were. The ads were a perfect distillation of the Republicans’ approach to impeachment: Like President Clinton confronting Saddam Hussein, they wanted to wound but were afraid to strike.
Since that gambit failed, the most common Republican message has been: Nobody wants to get this over more than we do. Or: Clinton should be removed, but his removal needn’t get in the way of the issues that matter to people. But then, as former congressman Vin Weber points out, “it’s been a long time since the public has heard a clear message from Republicans on anything.” Over the last few years, what the public has seen of the GOP is Newt Gingrich lecturing, the government shutdowns, infighting over social issues, Congress holding up disaster relief, and the Dole campaign (which could have used some disaster relief of its own). And now, a partisan impeachment. “As near as I can tell, we’re as [screwed] as we’ve ever been,” says Gillespie.
Most congressmen and party officials, and even many consultants, disagree. They have rediscovered the thrill of doing the right thing for its own sake, consequences for themselves be damned. The unpopularity of their stand only adds luster to its virtue. Chris Wilson, director of research for Shandwick Public Affairs, says, “It pains me to say this as a pollster but you kind of have to ignore public opinion much as Republicans did before the Civil War in terms of slavery. I think that eventually Republicans will be rewarded for doing the right thing. Now is that in two years or four years or ten years? We don’t know.” Slavery?
It’s one thing for senators to do their constitutional duty. Cavalier treatment of the House bill of impeachment would in any case pose risks of its own. It would disappoint conservatives. It would leave House Republicans exposed; they need a serious consideration of their case in the Senate to retrospectively legitimize their vote for the public. And the p.r. hit can be softened. If Democrats get to vote on censure after voting on conviction, they will have less credibility when arguing that Republicans were trying to get Clinton by undemocratic means. Actually removing Clinton might not even harm Republicans: An ABC-Washington Post poll suggests only 29 percent of the public would be angry.
What’s eerie is the blithe confidence of Republicans that time, an agenda, and a presidential candidate will see them through. Clinton won’t be on the ballot in 2000, they say. If Republicans are in such trouble, why are George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole both leading Al Gore in several polls?
This amnesia strategy might work, since the public clearly wants to forget this whole episode. Karlyn Bowman, the American Enterprise Institute’s poll-watcher, points out that when polls ask about the Republicans without asking about impeachment first, their image remains roughly the same as it was pre-scandal. But Republicans are still suffering because of impressions formed in 1995, the year of the Oklahoma City bombing and the government shutdown. The longer the Senate trial, the harder it will be to change those impressions. Democrats certainly think so. “I’m glad they’re playing for history,” says a Democratic pollster. “Because I’m playing for 2000.”
– Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor of National Review.