Republican Trump defenders beware: Democrats paid long-term price for sticking with Bill Clinton
Oct. 08, 2019
Republicans, with few exceptions, have been circling the wagons to defend President Trump on Ukraine. But as the story plays out, they should keep in mind that Democrats paid a long-term price for their defenses of Bill Clinton -- a price that arguably included the election of Trump himself.
In previous posts, I have gone through the details of the Ukraine story and explained why I thought it was bad news that a transcript revealed that Trump asked Ukraine’s president to investigate Joe Biden. But right now, the details are not going to sway many Republican Senators. What matters to them is the politics.
Right now, the politics are that 89 percent of Republicans approve of the job that Trump is doing. To the base of the party, the Ukraine story is a vicious attempt by the Left, Democrats, deep state, and media to overturn an election because they despise Trump. Any critical Republican will be viewed as a traitor and relentlessly attacked by Trump on Twitter. Most Republicans who go too far in criticizing Trump on Ukraine risk a primary challenge and depressed turnout in any general election. For most Republicans, gutting it out with Trump is probably the least risky strategy in the short run.
But while the short-term political calculations seem obvious, particularly for Senators up for reelection in deeply red states, the potential longer-term costs are quite different. And this is where it would pay to look back at the Clinton precedent.
At the time of his impeachment, Clinton’s approval rating was similarly high among Democrats, and his overall approval was significantly higher than Trump’s. It was an easy call to stick with Clinton and argue that the Monica Lewinsky scandal was a purely personal matter, and that Republicans had been out to get Clinton since Day One and thus should not be rewarded. In the popular memory, the Clinton impeachment was a complete debacle for Republicans, and totally blew up in their faces. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath, Clinton’s approval soared, reaching 73 percent, according to Gallup.
But in the long-run, it turned out differently.
Democrats lost the presidential election in 2000, in part, because George W. Bush was able to run on restoring dignity to the White House.
But there was also the broader impact on the culture that came from Clinton's debasing of the office of the presidency and pretending that what he did was no big deal. With their defenses, Democrats for decades undermined efforts to take seriously predatory behavior by men. Clinton, as the sitting president, exploited a power imbalance to obtain sexual favors from a 22 year-old White House intern. When the story emerged, his political henchmen ran a campaign to shame Lewinsky as a stalker and a slut, subjecting a young woman to nationwide mockery. This doesn’t even take into account the multiple other accusers of rape and sexual assault who were humiliated for coming forward, and dismissed as trailer trash . If the most powerful man in the world, and the party that prides itself on being defenders of women, embraces such tactics, it’s no surprise that we didn’t see anything like the “me too” movement emerge until 2017.
Liberal Matt Yglesias, for this reason, acknowledged that in hindsight, Clinton should have resigned over the Lewinsky scandal. As he notes, Al Gore would have become president, so there would have been no changes in policy.
But another factor to consider is how big a role Clinton’s lack of accountability played in paving the way for Trump, in both the primary and general election.
During the primaries, many journalists tried to point out the contradiction of Republican voters who once talked about the importance of character and family values suddenly rallying around a thrice-married serial adulterer with a history of crude remarks. Whenever I spoke to Republican primary voters on this, the answer inevitably came back to Clinton. Essentially, the view was, the horse went out of the barn during the Clinton era, and was never coming back. Clinton degraded the White House and took advantage of women, and liberals rallied around him. So why should rules of decency only be enforced for Republicans? If you don’t typically hang around a lot of Republican voters, I cannot emphasize strongly enough how much the Clinton experience fundamentally changed their approach to politics, particularly when it comes to character issues.
This dynamic would play out even more dramatically in the general election with the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump boasted of grabbing women. Trump was able to respond by having Bill Clinton accusers appear with Trump at a press conference ahead of a debate in which Hillary Clinton was intending to make an issue of Trump’s sexist remarks. Her active involvement in efforts to smear her husband’s accusers severely undermined this effort, and also made it seem insincere for her to take a “believe all women” position when it came to females accusing Trump.
I do not think Trump ever could have gotten elected president had Clinton resigned in disgrace in 1998 over the Lewinsky scandal. But even if you wouldn’t go this far, at a minimum, it is undeniable that it made his path a lot easier than in an alternate universe in which Clinton had resigned.
Republicans should consider this history and try to think about the longer-term implications of digging in for Trump. This isn’t to say that every Republican needs to go from zero to conviction in 60 seconds. It means that they should make judgments based on the evidence, as opposed to reverse engineering a defense for any Trump deed. It means that even if they don’t think impeachment is the ideal remedy during an election year, they can still acknowledge that certain behavior is wrong.
They should recognize that defending all of Trump’s actions will have a long-term cost. For instance, endorsing the idea that it’s okay for presidents to urge foreign countries -- even adversaries -- to investigate political rivals and that presidents should bar witnesses from testifying before Congress will inevitably come back to haunt Republicans. And it will only get worse with each new ad hoc defense of whatever else emerges. Even if Republicans survive damage in the short-term, the long-term consequences will be severe and unpredictable, even if they take decades to play out.
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