With all of the talk from Donald Trump and other Republicans in recent days about the idea of taking aim at Bill Clinton’s infidelity as a way to undermine the White House bid of his wife Hillary Clinton, a look back at the mid-term election of 1998 might offer a bit of a cautionary tale for the GOP.
It didn’t work.
1998 was dominated by the investigation of Clinton and his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, which exploded on to the Drudge Report on January 19 of that year, starting months of explosive political battles.
Republicans genuinely thought they could capitalize, as they started impeachment proceedings less than a month before the mid-term elections, and hoped the issue would bring much larger majorities for the GOP in Congress.
The GOP had already done very well in the 1994 mid-terms, winning control of the House for the first time in 40 years, picking up 53 seats, and propelling Newt Gingrich into the post of Speaker of the House.
But 1998 was different. The voters did not buy into the GOP push against Clinton, as Democrats actually picked up five seats in the House – while the Senate broke even, with no change.
Here is what I wrote after immediately after the election:
Admitting the GOP wrongly drifted into scandal mode, House Speaker Newt Gingrich says Republicans should have emphasized issues….Gingrich says he underestimated how tired people would become of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
And here was another story from right after the 1998 mid-terms:
After losing five House seats, GOP leaders said they needed a better election message…the focus on the Monica Lewinsky scandal was deemed a big mistake by the Christian Coalition’s Randy Tate…
Gingrich went on to say to reporters that he didn’t think his job as Speaker of the House would be in jeopardy.
But a few days later, Gingrich stunned Capitol Hill by announcing that he would resign.
Just because it didn’t work in 1998 doesn’t mean it can’t work in 2016, but the results from back then are a cautionary tale.
Issues or scandal?