Day 6

What Democrats looking to take on Trump can learn from the Republican effort to impeach Bill Clinton

The Democrats' midterm success and the firing of Jeff Sessions have fuelled new speculation about the inquiries, or even impeachment hearings, that could be coming in 2019. The New Republic's Matt Ford says Democrats should proceed with caution.

'Don't start unless you know you can finish it'

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters as he departs the White House en route to Paris from Washington, U.S., November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque - RC1C50A18550 (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
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The past week — and past two years — have been unprecedented in American politics. But in the annals of U.S. government history, 1998 was also a year to remember.

Republicans were challenging Democratic President Bill Clinton in a historic midterm election. At the time it was not clear where the investigation into the Clinton-Lewinsky affair was going, or what would happen when it was complete.

But House Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, smelled blood — and they opted to play the impeachment card.

How the tables have turned since then.

On Nov. 7, Democrats reclaimed the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives in a historic midterm election, sparking new speculation about the investigations and inquiries they might launch against President Donald Trump in 2019.

As in 1998, some in the Democratic party are openly considering the possibility of pursuing impeachment hearings against the U.S. president.
 
But today's Democrats may want to take some lessons from the Republicans who went before them, according to Matt Ford of the New Republic.

The journalist tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury that the Republicans' strategy in 1998 eventually backfired, and that with the ongoing turmoil around the Mueller investigation, Democrats have a lot to learn from that failed effort.

Here's part of that conversation.

Take us back to September 1998. It's Clinton's second term; the midterms are just months away, and Ken Starr's report has just been published. What were GOP strategists thinking at the time?

Well, they were thinking this would be a tremendous electoral asset to them. Here you have a report by an independent prosecutor laying out a case for which the president has allegedly committed crimes — perjury, obstruction of justice.

They thought that would give them some headwinds going into a midterm election where they hoped to capitalize on their gains and perhaps even bolster them ahead of an impeachment fight.

Former U.S. Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks in Washington, D.C. in November 1998. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

And how confident was Newt Gingrich that the GOP could ride the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal to victory in the midterms?

He was pretty confident. And you have to realize that the Republican Party had already captured plenty of seats in Congress.

What they hoped is that these would put them over the edge to perhaps expand their legislative priorities, and also to take the impeachment process to its logical conclusion — especially by removing him in the Senate.

What was the effect of the Republicans' rhetoric around impeachment?

What polls showed at the time was that in the aftermath of the Starr report, support for Clinton and the Democrats actually increased.

People may have seemed to recoil from the lurid descriptions and from the tawdry details. But that recoiling didn't manifest itself toward Clinton; it manifested itself toward the people making the accusations.

So the Republicans thought they had a good issue going into the midterms. What happened in the midterms of 1998?

Well they actually ended up losing seats. They lost a handful of seats in the House of Representatives, Democrats were able to make some gains there, and they didn't make the ground they wanted to in the Senate.

Republicans had been questioning Clinton for years about all sorts of scandals, real or imagined. They'd tried to find a magic bullet ...  and they thought they had one.- Matt Ford, The New Republic

And what that suggested was that voters had simply been sort of inundated with this scandal for so long that it didn't resonate with them anymore.

Historically, there's a pretty solid pattern ... of presidents losing seats in Congress during the midterms. Clinton really defied that trend, because the pattern is even stronger at the six-year mark of a presidency.

So the Republicans come back to a diminished presence in the House, and they launch the impeachment proceedings anyway. Why did they do that even after voters indicated clearly that they weren't interested?

Well, there's a few approaches to this. One is that there's almost a sunk cost fallacy. The Republicans had been questioning Clinton for years about all sorts of scandals, real or imagined.

They'd tried to find a magic bullet to take him out of office and they thought they had one. They thought they had clear and convincing evidence that he had committed criminal wrongdoing.

The second was coming from their base, which at this time was heavily influenced by talk radio — the emerging conservative media establishment — that was really sending a different message than what a lot of Americans on the left and in the centre were hearing from mainstream media outlets, and that kept the outrage alive.

US President Bill Clinton pauses a moment while being asked about former White House intern Monica Lewinsky at a press conference on March 5, 1999. (Stephen Jaffe/AFP/Getty Images)

So let's fast forward now to 2018. Given everything that you've just laid out, do you think Democrats should be concerned about the political ramifications if they push for further investigation of the president?

Well that's certainly a risk in this scenario.

You know, one of the big lessons from how Republicans handled all their investigations into Clinton is that you have to make sure that these things aren't frivolous. You have to give voters the opportunity to distinguish between what's serious and what's trivial.

What they have to avoid is giving the impression that Trump is a victim in this circumstance.- Matt Ford, The New Republic

What happened was that there was simply so much being thrown against Clinton that it became hard for voters to tell what allegations actually mattered.

The other aspect that they ran into is that Republicans failed to really make the case to voters that this was in the best interest of the country.

A lot of Americans still stood by Clinton. This was at a time in the United States when the economy was booming. And so removing him from office — one of the most serious acts you can take in our democracy — really seemed to be a bridge too far for many who may have been wary of the allegations

This week, President Trump fired his attorney general. Many are thinking that the Mueller investigation might be in jeopardy. If the president makes a move to end the investigation, would that give Democrats a credibility to act that the GOP didn't have in 1998?

Well, there certainly is precedent for it. One of the things that doomed Richard Nixon during the Watergate crisis was actually his efforts to cover them up.

And a key moment in that was the Saturday Night Massacre, when he fired the attorney general and the deputy attorney general in an attempt to remove the Watergate special prosecutor.

The political backlash from that was tremendous on both sides of the aisle. And Nixon never really recovered from that.

U.S. Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi reacts to the results of the U.S. midterm elections in Washington D.C. on November 6, 2018. Later that evening, Ms. Pelosi suggested impeachment was unlikely. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Do you think it's possible that Democrats, if they pursue impeachment, could ultimately end up sealing a Trump victory in 2020?

That's a risk they're going to have to be wary of. What they have to avoid is giving the impression that Trump is a victim in this circumstance — that he's being treated unfairly or being mistreated by Democrats.

Democrats believe they have plenty of legitimate grounds to investigate him, even from what's been uncovered under Republican control of Congress.

But if they get bogged down in sort of the minutia, they're going to have a difficult time justifying the investigations to the voters.

So looking at what happened in 1998 and the Clinton impeachment process, what is the lesson for Democrats in the House today?

One of the biggest ones is, perhaps, don't start unless you know you can finish it.

One of the problems that Republicans ran into is that yes, they had the votes to impeach Clinton in the House of Representatives, but when that reached the Senate they didn't have the votes necessary to remove him from office.

And without that, you saw tremendous backlash.


This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

To hear the full interview with Matt Ford, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.

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