It didn’t work in the 1990s, and it won’t work today.
Donald Trump’s pivot to a general-election strategy, with his emphasis on attacking Hillary Clinton, feels like a bad sequel to a terrible film. Yes, Hillary is crooked, and she may well be worse: a rapist enabler, a felon, a starter of wars, and a decimator of the middle class. But Republicans thought they had the Clintons dead to rights before, and they were wrong.
In the 1990s, as many conservatives painfully recall, Republicans fully invested themselves in the Bill Clinton Project, a shaky-cam, pre-reality-TV reality project about the Clintons’ exploits and impeachment. The script featured high-minded dialogue about the Constitution and “high crimes and misdemeanors,” but it was really a partisan production about the tawdry details — a blue dress, a cigar, and a president who did unspeakable things with an intern in the Oval Office.
As an aide to Representative Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, I had a front-row seat to the impeachment process. We recall in Coburn’s 2003 book, Breach of Trust: How Washington Turns Outsiders into Insiders:
Many Republicans expected that President Clinton’s colossally foolish act of having an affair with a twenty-one-year-old intern, and then lying to cover it up, would cause the public to vote for Republicans in large numbers. Our consultants and leaders reinforced this expectation. In fact, in one meeting of the Republican conference, [Newt] Gingrich told restless conservatives that we did not need to mobilize our base with a bold agenda because Clinton had already motivated our base for us.
The project was a dud. Republicans lost seats in 1998 after the impeachment ordeal. Our base was not “motivated” and Bill Clinton emerged from the confrontation more popular than before. The cautionary tale for today is that scandalism — the politics of exploiting your opponent’s weakness — is no substitute for substance.
The Trump campaign is susceptible to this trap for two reasons. First, Trump lacks substance and has no clear principles, world-view, or policy agenda to pivot to. Second, one of Trump’s chief adviseors, Newt Gingrich, was the architect of the failed anti-Clinton strategy in the ’90s.
Gingrich, no doubt, is a bright and talented person. He’s also been the beneficiary of — as Mark Leibovich and others have observed — our nation’s acceptance of second, third, and even fourth acts in American politics. Newt has gone from insurgent to speaker of the House to exiled philosopher. Newt’s latest incarnation as base whisperer — a great diviner and interpreter of the will of the people — is a bit insufferable for those who recall his failed tenure as speaker.
As Coburn recalled, Newt referred to the Class of 1994 rebels who wanted Republicans to offer an aspirational agenda as “you conservatives” who lacked his tactical and intellectual sophistication. Newt’s strategy for 1998 was to run on scandalism and hope that would distract the base from Republican support of a pork-laden transportation bill and an omnibus spending bill that included seven C-130 transport planes for Newt’s congressional district (the Pentagon had requested only one).
#share#Newt’s senior role in today’s Trumpstablishment illustrates the conceit of Trump supporters who want to dismiss skeptics as out-of-touch insiders. But the record shows skeptics like Coburn, who literally wrote the book on how to be an effective outsider and spent a decade cleaning up Newt’s mess, were much better listeners, tacticians, and policymakers.
Newt not only tolerated cronyism but also expanded the earmark favor factory and filled the hot tub for Jack Abramoff and future felons like Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski’s old boss Representative Bob Ney. (Lewandowski urged leniency for Ney when the voter revolt Trump is now harnessing was beginning to form.) Is this what the Trumpstablishment means by “listening” to the base?
The impeachment saga, of course, ended poorly for Newt. He was forced to resign after the 1998 elections when Coburn and a handful of conservatives threatened to vacate the chair and allow an open election for speaker. On his way out Newt called the constitutional conservatives of that era “cannibals.”
Let’s assume Hillary is indicted: Wouldn’t that seal her fate? Not necessarily.
This episode was significant in modern Republican history because it led to two great corrective movements — the Tea Party and Ryanism. Newt’s addiction to earmarking and his passion for spending orgies led Republicans astray through the Bush years. This era didn’t end until the Tea Party–inspired earmark ban and 2013’s budget sequestration. Perhaps more important, Newt’s failed assumption that Clinton’s scandalous behavior had “already motivated the base for us” inspired a young congressman named Paul Ryan to merge Coburn’s fearlessness with a principled commitment to tell the country what we were for so that if we won we would have a mandate for change. Ryan has spent his entire time in public life setting up a confrontation — a choice — between progressivism and conservatism. Ryan’s aim is to reboot the Founders’ vision and apply their principles to today’s challenges, as Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp did before him.
Make no mistake, there is nothing misguided about highlighting Hillary’s flaws for a time. In fact, there’s a good case to be made for defining Clinton early as “Crooked Hillary.” Mitt Romney’s advisers almost universally agree their campaign was over before it could start because the Left had already defined Romney as an uncaring and out-of-touch rich white guy.
So let’s assume Hillary is hypocritical and a self-righteous enabler who believes rape accusers should be believed unless they’re accusing her husband. Add this to her e-mail server scandal, her handling of Benghazi, and her cronyism and conflicts of interest as described in the new film Clinton Cash and you have a portrait of a very crooked politician indeed.
Let’s further assume Hillary is indicted: Wouldn’t that seal her fate? Not necessarily, and it could backfire if Trump overplays his hand.
Voters in 2016 are already starting from the assumption that Washington politicians are crooked and useless. More evidence to that effect — even an indictment — won’t change voters’ minds about something they already believe. Dwelling on Hillary’s flaws, as Newt did with Bill in 1998, will make Trump look like just another Washington politician who values the acquisition of power over enacting change that matters to people.
#related#The media would love 2016 to be a race between an alleged playboy-predator (Trump) and an alleged predator-playboy (Clinton) and the women who love and loathe them. But the glare of easy earned media around the Clinton scandals is the event horizon of a political black hole. If Trump presses this case too aggressively, Democrats will employ easy counter-attacks. After all, we’re the party that elevated a child molester to speaker of the House (Dennis Hastert). We’re the party that allowed a hypocritical philanderer (Gingrich) to prosecute a hyper-partisan impeachment. (And, by the way, if Trump was so disturbed by “Rapist Bill” and his enabler wife, why did he donate money to Hillary and allow Bill to put his arm around his wife at a wedding?)
The ’90s showed that voters don’t really care about Clinton scandals. Voters care far more about their own problems. The candidate who focuses on those problems will win.
If Trump wants to win he should tune out Newt and tune in Ryan. It’s fine to try to define Hillary — for now. But he should quickly move on to telling the country what exactly he is for.