When Spin Doesn't Work

In 1998, impeachment trumped whatever Republicans wanted to be running on.
Don't ask me about impeachment.

Ramesh Ponnuru has a nice post today about 1998, 2014, and the Republican agenda.

He could put more emphasis on the major difference between the two elections (and 2006): Bill Clinton's popularity in 1998, George W. Bush's dismal approval ratings in 2006 and Barack Obama's mediocre ratings in 2014 are far more important than anything the out-party might do.

But mainly I have to disagree with one point:

Conventional wisdom holds that Republicans ran on a platform of removing President Bill Clinton from office and lost because the public hated the idea.

That isn't exactly what happened. Voters did indeed want Clinton to remain in the presidency. Yet Republicans knew that: 66 percent of the public in a Gallup survey that October said they approved of the job he was doing. Republicans also knew that 68 percent of respondents told Pew the same month that they didn't like Clinton "personally." So they ran ads saying that voting Republican would punish Clinton and keep him in check, but they didn't promise to remove him from office.

Well, no.

It doesn't matter what ads Republicans broadcast. When your party is actually impeaching a president, it doesn't matter whether or not you put that in your ads; it's going to be what your party is running on anyway.

My favorite 1998 story is that late in the year Newt Gingrich took to attacking the press for pressing him about the Monica Lewinsky story and impeachment at every campaign stop. Never mind that Newt was in the process of impeaching the president, so it probably was an important issue for reporters to ask about. But what's funny about this is that Newt had pledged to never give a speech without mentioning the scandal. Seemed like a good idea in spring of 1998, when Republicans (and many others in Washington, including Democrats) couldn't believe that Clinton's popularity was enduring. It seemed much less of a good idea by November 1998. And at any rate, peace and prosperity mattered more than Clinton's personal misbehavior, though impeachment almost certainly did help the Democrats.

The main point here is the limits of spin. Impeachment, a yearlong scandal, and six years of scandal-mongering trumped whatever Republicans wanted to be running on by fall 1998. That's what they were really running on, no matter what the ads said. Reality matters; spin attracts the attention of reporters, but its importance is almost always hugely overrated.

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