Voters Say It’s Not the Scandal, Stupid

November 5, 1998

Never has so little electoral change been so pregnant with political meaning. Tuesday’s midterm elections sent very few incumbents packing—only six of 401 House members, three of 30 senators and two of 24 governors—and they left the parties’ relative strength in Congress and the statehouses virtually unchanged.

It’s hard to imagine a set of results that would constitute a more ringing endorsement of the status quo. A healthy economy, a generally content, even optimistic citizenry and a president enjoying strikingly high job approval ratings are not the stuff of which voter rebellions are sparked.

But in spite of this seemingly benign environment, this was no ordinary year in American politics. For almost 10 months the Washington community has been convulsed by a presidential scandal—one rooted in reckless sexual behavior by Bill Clinton but lent substantial weight by its linkage to a civil suit against the president and an investigation by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr of possible perjury, obstruction of justice and witness tampering.

It is impossible to overstate the extent to which the political community felt betrayed by the president and convinced that he would be forced from office, one way or the other.

The public, on the other hand, while morally offended by the president’s misbehavior and skeptical of the content of his character, has been steadfast in its belief that Clinton’s personal failings did not compromise his ability to function successfully as chief executive. Each new public revelation of titillating details served mainly to reinforce their view that the effort to force the president from office was both unwise and, at least in part, politically motivated. This gap between Washington and public opinion had to close before the president’s future could be resolved. Now that the election returns are in, we know how that gap will close. The message from the election is crystal-clear: The Washington community will have to accommodate itself to the views of the country.

This will definitely not be another case in which “knowledgeable” political elites educate the public on the proper course of action. Barring some startling, credible new charges against the president, the natural survival instinct of House Republicans will almost certainly lead them to curtail their formal impeachment inquiry and find some resolution to this matter short of voting articles of impeachment, probably before the year’s end.

Ironically, this message was not sent by making the midterm elections a referendum on impeachment. Very few candidates in either party made the scandal a centerpiece of their campaigns, and a very small percentage of citizens appears to have used the vote to express strong views on the president’s misbehavior. To be sure, some changes in turnout patterns (such as the increase among blacks) may have been influenced by feelings about the president and a few close races could have been affected at the margin by the scandal and the impeachment process.

But the public sent its message primarily by seizing back the campaign agenda, by rejecting efforts (including the last-minute dvertizing blitz by the Republican Party) to make the Bill and Monica story the centerpiece, by insisting that the election be about matters of consequence – the health of the economy; the record, ideological center of gravity and image of the two parties; and the relative attractiveness of the candidates on the ballot.

Thanks to the public, we may soon be able to close down those long-running cable TV series on the crisis in the White House and return to more interesting and consequential questions about politics and policy. For starters, the historic loss of seats by the House Republicans and the failure of the Senate Republicans to gain ground is a major blow to the majority leadership in Congress and stands in stark contrast to the stunning victories enjoyed by a slew of more pragmatic Republican governors.

The Republican Party has a good deal of soul-searching to do about where its most promising future lies, a process that could pay dividends for both the party and the country. And, after their demoralizing defeat four years ago, Democrats have buoyed spirits about their prospects for regaining control of Congress in 2000 and incentives to work with the president to fashion a credible, attractive program for governing. Sure beats more scandal talk.