Republican politicians and activists can barely contain their glee at the simultaneous eruption of three major controversies about the Obama administration.
Conservatives are at a low boil over the administration’s dissembling about its actions after the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. The public is concerned about the targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service. And even liberals are outraged by the administration’s heavy-handed investigations of leaks to the news media.
Finally, many Republicans think, the tide is turning against the Democrats. 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.
Early that year, it came to light that President Bill Clinton had had a sexual relationship with a White House intern and lied about it to the public, to a court in a civil suit and to a grand jury in a criminal case. Congressional Republicans tried to remove him from office. The public hated the idea, and Republicans lost seats in the fall elections. They had been expected to make significant gains because the opposition party usually did in the sixth year of a presidency. House Speaker Newt Gingrich lost his job largely as a result.
Watch the way the Republicans are handling today’s controversies and it’s easy to see how their tactics could backfire again. You would expect that Sen. Lindsey Graham, who helped to lead the impeachment proceedings against Clinton, had learned to be cautious in pursuing a scandal. Yet he decided to tie the Benghazi investigation explicitly to the 2016 presidential race, saying that the controversy would doom Hillary Clinton. If Graham were a Democratic plant trying to make the investigation look like a merely partisan exercise, he couldn’t have done better.
Republicans are trying to tie IRS misconduct to President Barack Obama, so far without much evidence. The Republican National Committee is demanding that the president apologize to targeted groups, apparently on the assumption that the public isn’t satisfied with his calling the IRS’s actions “intolerable and inexcusable.” Other Republicans are saying that the president created a “culture” that made the scandal possible by being a partisan Democrat.
These efforts are strained. If the evidence leads to the conclusion that the IRS bureaucracy acted on its own, that is scandal enough; it would serve to strengthen the public’s conservative instincts about the dangers of trusting the government, whoever happens to be in the Oval Office. Republicans shouldn’t be obsessed with Obama, who won’t be on the ballot again, and shouldn’t make a legitimate inquiry into potential abuses of power appear to be - or, worse, actually be - part of a personal vendetta.
The biggest danger for Republicans in giving themselves over to scandal mania is one that the conventional retelling of the Clinton impeachment neglects. Republicans didn’t lose seats simply because they overreached on Clinton’s perjury. It is true that his impeachment was unpopular, and public approval of the Republicans sank as they pursued it. Still, only 5 percent of voters in the 1998 election told exit pollsters that the scandal had played a role in their decision, and Republicans got a majority of those voters.
Social Security was the top issue for more than twice as many voters, and Republicans lost that issue by 18 percentage points. Even more voters cared about education, which Republicans lost by 34 points. They lost on health care and the economy by similar margins.
For the most part, Republicans didn’t campaign on impeachment in 1998: They didn’t say, “Vote for me and I’ll do my level best to oust Clinton.” Their strategy was more passive. They were counting on the scandal to motivate conservatives to vote while demoralizing liberals. So they didn’t try to devise a popular agenda, or to make their existing positions less unpopular. That’s what cost them - that, and the mistake of counting on statistics about sixth-year elections, which also bred complacency.
Republicans have similar vulnerabilities on the issues now. They have no real health-care agenda. Voters don’t trust them to look out for middle-class economic interests. Republicans are confused and divided about how to solve the party’s problems. What they can do is unite in opposition to the Obama administration’s scandals and mistakes. So that’s what they’re doing. They’re trying to win news cycles when they need votes.
Congressional Republicans were right to press for hearings on all of these issues. But investigations of the administration won’t supply them with ideas. They won’t make the public trust Republicans. They won’t save them from themselves.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at National Review.