Four Big Lessons GOP Learned From The Clinton Era

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The divided government under President Barack Obama is in some ways similar to what Bill Clinton faced during the 1990s: a Republican-led Congress full of staunch conservatives staring down a Democratic president.

But some of the tactics Republicans tried then backfired. And today, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who had a seat at the Republican leadership table in that era, has been careful not to repeat the biggest mistakes his party made.

Here are four major lessons they learned from the Clinton years.

1) Don’t Shut Down The Government

The Newt Gingrich-led Republican Congress forced two government shutdowns, late in 1995 and early in 1996, over budget disputes with Bill Clinton. The shutdowns ended badly for them because the public blamed the GOP and boosted Clinton’s approval ratings ahead of his re-election in 1996.

Today, Republican leaders and veteran strategists know better. Even while leading a House GOP majority filled with tea partiers hungry for confrontation, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and other Republican leaders have successfully maneuvered to tame the rebellion at every juncture long enough to avoid shutdowns or defaults on the national debt. A series of self-inflicted budget crises? Of course — but always stopping short, so far, of the precipice.

“We went through this with Clinton,” Steven Bell, a former Senate Republican budget aide, told TPM recently. “I was in the room when we did this. If the government shuts down, it isn’t going to be blamed on the President.”

2) Don’t Overreach On Scandals

From the Whitewater investigations to Monica Lewinsky, Republicans in the 1990s were consumed with finding scandals to bring down Clinton’s presidency. The series of efforts that culminated in the impeachment of Clinton didn’t go over well with the public: Republicans ended up losing seats in the 1998 midterm election, a rarity for the party out of power.

Today key Republicans are cognizant of the perils of scandal overreach as tea party members seek to harp on administration woes surrounding the killing of a U.S. ambassador in Benghazi and I.R.S. targeting of political groups. As conservative columnist Ramesh Ponnuru reported in May, “Republican strategists — and the few conservatives on Capitol Hill who were in Washington during the Clinton years — are less excited. They fear that the party is about to repeat the mistakes it made in 1998.”

Earlier this summer, no less an Obama foe than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) sought to tamp down the frenzy, cautioning conservatives not to “hold your breath” for any evidence of White House involvement in the I.R.S. transgressions.

3) Don’t Impeach The President For Political Gain

When the House impeached Bill Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice in 1998, the public saw the impeachment as an expression of primal conservative distaste for the president. And it backfired: Republicans lost a net of five House seats that November and failed to pick up any Senate seats.

Today, as conservatives’ desire to impeach Obama grows, some Republicans are searching for a pretext to make it happen: freshman Rep. Kerry Bentivolio (R-MI) said doing so would be a “dream come true.”

But again, Republican leaders know better and have actively steered clear of impeachment talk. Political scientist and liberal columnist Jonathan Bernstein recently wrote that although he wonders if the party will ultimately be able to help itself, “it does seem that one positive lesson Republican congressional leaders did learn from the Newt Gingrich years is that a pointless impeachment without the votes to convict was a pretty bad idea.”

4) Opposing Health Care Reform Is Politically Lucrative

Republicans had a hunch they’d profit politically by waging an all-out war against Clinton’s health care reform effort. Their big insight was that the public is easily scared by sweeping changes and that they’d have a public relations advantage in the battle. They were right: the bill went down, and the backlash helped Republicans take back the majority in both chambers of Congress in 1994, winning a whopping net 54 seats in the House and nine in the Senate.

And so Republicans sought to repeat that feat under President Obama, making a political calculus early on to oppose his health care reform effort. This time Democrats, having learned their own lessons from the Clinton fiasco, persisted and succeeded. But the GOP’s political plan worked anyway, at least in the short term: the public rebelled and gave Republicans huge victories in the 2010 midterms, bestowing on them the clout to thwart, frustrate and shape President Obama’s initiatives ever since.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sahil Kapur is TPM's senior congressional reporter and Supreme Court correspondent. His articles have been published in the Huffington Post, The Guardian and The New Republic. Email him at sahil@talkingpointsmemo.com and follow him on Twitter at @sahilkapur.
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