Are the Republicans Repeating the Mistake of 1998?Roundup
tags: Republican Party, conservatism, political history
Steven M. Gillon is a senior faculty fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia and scholar-in-residence at HISTORY. He teaches history at the University of Oklahoma and is author of The Democrats' Dilemma: Walter F. Mondale and the Liberal Legacy (Columbia University Press, 1992).
Democrats have newfound hope for November. The Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which ended the constitutional right to abortion, along with the passage of major pieces of President Biden’s economic agenda and falling gas prices, have temporarily buoyed their spirits about the upcoming midterm elections. Pat Ryan’s victory in an Aug. 23 special election in a swing district in New York — after a campaign in which he focused on protecting abortion rights — suggests that those hopes are not misplaced.
Yet Democrats still face enormous challenges. Not only does the party that controls the White House almost always lose seats in the midterms, but President Biden’s low approval ratings, along with high inflation, give the GOP a clear edge. The 1998 midterms, however, indicate that Democrats have a secret weapon that could have a dramatic impact: Republican extremism.
That year, Republicans chose to stoke the anger of their right-wing base and impeach President Bill Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky, ignoring polls that showed an overwhelming majority of Americans wanted Clinton to remain in office. They are making similar mistakes this year. In 1998, Republicans were trying to remove a democratically elected president for lying about a private matter. This time, they are defending Donald Trump, a twice-impeached ex-president who denies the results of a legitimate election, who encouraged a violent mob to descend upon the Capitol to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power, and who now appears to have kept classified documents in violation of the law. They’ve also adopted extreme positions on cultural issues, especially abortion, that defy the opinion of clear majorities of Americans. In other words, then and now, Republicans are choosing political partisanship over democratic fairness — though it remains to be seen if the outcomes will be the same.
Many conservatives hated Clinton because they saw him as the embodiment of the countercultural values that emerged from the Left during the 1960s. He smoked marijuana, dodged the draft, married a feminist and appointed members of the LGBTQ community to high-level positions. They couldn’t believe he won twice, and that was before they found out in early 1998 that he had an affair with a young White House intern. The conservative White Christians, largely Southern, who dominated the GOP viewed the affair through the lens of morality. They were determined to punish Clinton and purge the values that he represented from government.
Even so, they tried to cloak this motive and focus the impeachment debate on the rule of law, specifically lying under oath. But this tactic didn’t work — for most Americans the debate was all about sex.