Did Impeachment Plans Damage Republicans in 1998?

Newt Gingrich, right, and his sidekick Tom DeLay on the night of the 1998 midterms, after which Gingrich resigned from Congress. Photo: Douglas Graham/CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

In the extensive and often heated debate about possible House impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump, proponents and opponents alike often haul in evidence from the two modern precedents: Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.

Impeachment fans most often tout the Nixon impeachment effort, partly because it forced the Tricky One into resignation less than two years after he won a massive landslide reelection victory, and partly because it succeeded in gradually building support for this drastic measure in a way that they envision happening again once Trump’s crimes are solemnly investigated.

Opponents tend to bring up the Republican drive to bring down Bill Clinton in 1998 (which formally didn’t begin until after the midterms, but overshadowed politics for many months before that). This effort not only failed to remove him from office (he was easily and quickly acquitted by the Senate in early 1999), but appeared to have a lot to do with a calamitous Republican performance in those midterms which, instead of dooming Clinton, drove House Speaker Newt Gingrich into an early retirement just four years after his apotheosis in the Republican Revolution of 1994.

This latter impeachment effort, perhaps because it failed so signally, hasn’t gotten as much scrutiny as Watergate, and so a lot of the arguments about its impact on those 1998 midterms — highly relevant to the impact an impeachment of Trump might have in 2020 — have been based on preconceptions and limited information. Kyle Kondik of Sabato’s Crystal Ball has now conducted a usefully deep dive into the available evidence about what happened in that election.

To begin with, it’s true the outcome was a bit of a shock from a historical point of view: It was the first time the party controlling the White House had gained House seats in a midterm since FDR’s Democrats pulled it off in 1934. And this wasn’t just any old midterm:

This was a “sixth-year itch” election, a midterm conducted during a second consecutive term of a party’s control of the White House. There were some catastrophically bad “sixth-year itch” elections in the recent memory of the time: 1938, 1958, 1966, and 1974 all qualified (later, 2006 and perhaps 2014 also would). The president’s party in those years were all undone by overreach, scandal, war, recession, or some combination of those factors. It may have seemed that Clinton’s scandal could have been the trigger for a similar result in 1998, but that didn’t happen, in part because Republicans misplayed their hand on impeachment.

This, of course, is the nightmare scenario for Democrats in 2020: that they blow an opportunity to run Trump out of the White House because they have “misplayed their hand on impeachment.”

But as Kondik notes, there were also signs this wasn’t going to be a typical midterm all along, and some of them predated the intense focus on impeachment that emerged toward the end of the cycle:

Clinton’s approval rating was consistently high throughout his second term. Thus, one of the usual contributors to a midterm wave — an unpopular president — was missing from the equation. So was a backlash to legislative overreach, as Clinton had lost the House and the Senate in 1994 and thus could hew to the political middle.

Additionally, there’s not much sign from public polling that the battle for the House in the 1998 cycle appeared to be a Republican rout but then snapped back to the Democrats. House generic ballot polls from Gallup/CNN/USA Today, Pew Research, and NBC News/Wall Street Journal in 1997 all found the Democrats leading, according to a compilation of such polls from (One has to account for the reality that the House generic ballot generally overstated the Democratic advantage both back then and even for much of the recent 2014 and 2016 cycles. Still, it’s not like there was some obvious indicator from polls that the GOP was set up for a wave year in 1998 given the 1997 polling.) …

As it was, the GOP won the House national popular vote by about a point and won a narrow 223-212 majority in 1998.

This last fact is worth remembering, too: While Republicans lost House seats in 1998, they maintained control of the chamber. In 2020, it doesn’t really matter to Democrats whether they gain or lose in the popular-vote margin as compared to Hillary Clinton’s 2.1 percent advantage in 2016; it’s winner take all.

Kondik also notes that big midterm swings had become more episodic in the late 20th century. And indeed, in the very next midterm election after 1998, the White House Party again gained House seats — thanks presumably to the effects of September 11 and the jingoism associated with the Afghanistan invasion and the initial run-up to the Iraq War. So attributing the 1998 results strictly to blowback from impeachment talk, while plausible, is not a strongly supported proposition.

All in all, it’s by no means clear that the GOP’s obsession with the Monica Lewinsky scandal as a vehicle for ridding themselves of the rascally Bill Clinton cost them a win in 1998. But for some impeachment enthusiasts, the more powerful argument is that the residual effects of impeachment helped Republicans in the longer run, particularly in 2000. After talking to people involved in the Gore and Bush campaigns of that year, Ron Brownstein drew precisely that lesson:

[I]n 2000, lingering unease about Clinton’s behavior provided a crucial backdrop for George W. Bush’s winning presidential campaign — particularly his defining promise “to restore honor and dignity” to the Oval Office.

Matthew Dowd, a senior strategist for Bush’s 2000 campaign, told me that Democrats today “are learning the wrong lessons” from Clinton’s impeachment by neglecting to consider how it shaped both election cycles, especially the presidential race. In January 2001, almost exactly two years after House Republicans defied public opinion to impeach Clinton, the GOP controlled the White House, the House, and initially the Senate. (Within months, the Republican Jim Jeffords of Vermont would switch parties, shifting control to the Democrats.) “Having gone through all that,” Dowd said, “I think the Democrats are way too skittish on impeachment.”

If Clinton had been eligible to run for reelection in 2000, the parallels would be stronger. Sure, Al Gore’s advisers (who reinforced Dodd’s views to Brownstein) had every reason to blame their loss on Clinton’s scandal, rather than Gore’s own campaign decisions. After the long boom of the 1990s, there were economic jitters — notably the explosion of the dot-com “bubble” — that may have affected the 2000 vote. And Bush lost the popular vote, needing some Florida shenanigans and a politicized Supreme Court to win.

While the 1998–2000 precedent doesn’t supply a slam-dunk case against impeachment, those who argue impeaching Trump is the best or the only way Democrats can win in 2000 are on thin ice historically. As Kondik notes:

[I]t may be instructive to recall Gingrich’s words in the aftermath of his 1998 disappointment. “Things were happening out there that none of us fully understand,” he said.

If House Democrats conclude their constitutional duty demands a move toward impeachment, that’s one thing, and an honorable thing. But politically, it’s likely to be a plunge into the unknown.

Did Impeachment Plans Damage Republicans in 1998?