THE TRIUMPH OF CLINTONISM
11:00 PM, Nov 15, 1998 • By DAVID FRUM
There's no blinking the truth: Campaign '98 was not only a bad Republican defeat, it was a personal triumph for the president. Some happy-talk Republicans will want of course to deny the magnitude of the president's victory. They will point to the exit polls showing that voters still disapprove of his character; they will argue (as Newt Gingrich has) that the media are willfully ignoring the big news of a third consecutive Republican House majority; or perhaps (like Senate majority leader Trent Lott) they will repeat post-election the Democratic pre-election spin that the '98 results were the product of hundreds of local races rather than one big national campaign.
Well, phooey. Throughout the campaign, the Democratic party made clear that a vote for them was a vote to let the president off scotfree. (At this writing, the Democratic ads are still posted at the party's Web site, www.democrats.org.) The ritualized condemnations of the president's "inappropriate" behavior that congressional Democrats unhappily summoned up in August were nowhere to be heard in October. They nailed their colors to the mast. "All Republicans talk about are investigations," an actress complained in one radio spot. "They are obsessed with getting rid of the president. There is one way to stop this." "Yeah," replies a second female voice. "It's time to get rid of those Republicans." The last round of Democratic national television ads put the message even more bluntly. Against a background of the Capitol dome, the ads intoned, "This is no ordinary time. Republicans have made removing the president from office their top priority. Vote Democratic and tell Congress we're ready to move on."
The Democrats offered the voters the promise of 100,000 new unionized public-school teachers and the abolition of the laws of arithmetic insofar as they apply to Social Security. All they asked in return was that the voters overlook the multiple perjuries and other crimes of the party leader, and vote for one of his local henchmen. And the American public took the deal -- or at any rate enough of them did to break with the ancient sixth-year curse (according to which the president's party loses congressional seats during his second term).
The president and the Democrats achieved this notwithstanding a Republican ad campaign intended to reassure voters that they too meant Clinton no real harm. The idea that the Republicans were a party of sex-crazed investigators -- an idea we'll be hearing a lot of over the next few days -- is almost delusional in its revisionism. Whatever one thinks of Kenneth Starr, the Republican congressional party looked on the Lewinsky scandal with about as much appetite as a French parliamentary delegation encountering its first dish of Senate bean soup. Throughout 1998, the Republican leadership in Congress ducked and squirmed and prayed -- both silently and out loud -- that the scandal would somehow go away on its own, perhaps through a quick and tidy presidential resignation in the wake of the Starr report, perhaps through one of the apology-censure deals broached by Sen. Orrin Hatch or Gerald Ford. Republican congressmen are human, after all, and they very understandably wanted to be spared the embarrassment of talking about so squalid a scandal on national television. They were human, too, in being sensitive to the likelihood that the famously vindictive Clinton White House would pry into the personal lives of its opponents to convince the public that the president should be excused because, after all, "everybody does it."
It was not the congressional Republicans but the media -- unable to stomach an endless diet of lies from the president and the White House -- that drove this scandal, and it was conservative activists and not the local Republican parties who responded to it. Until the very last week of the campaign, national Republican ads made scant reference to the Lewinsky scandal, and all but a handful of individual campaigns shunned it altogether. Only at the end did the Republicans raise the matter, and then in the most gingerly way. "In every election there is one big question to think about," began a television ad over black-and-white footage of voters lining up at an old-fashioned booth. "This year, it's, Should we reward Bill Clinton? Should we reward not telling the truth? Reward Bill Clinton or vote Republican."