How fiscal cliff 2012 is like impeachment 1998

Two Congresses, more than a decade apart — 2012 and 1998 — show what happens when a congressional party doesn’t know (or maybe doesn’t care) that it’s been repudiated at the polls and public opinion is against them.

In 1998, the Republican House pursued President Bill Clinton for lying about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. In September, Clinton admitted his lies. Polls consistently showed that most Americans approved of his actions as president but not as a husband – and they didn’t want him removed.

Then Republicans lost seats in the House, something that went against the strong historical pattern of the nonpresidential party gaining seats in the sixth year of a presidency. Gingrich resigned his Speakership.

But that was not the end of the impeachment pursuit, as House Republicans passed two of the four articles of impeachment, sending the case to the Senate for trial. Ultimately, none of the articles received even a majority, let alone the two-thirds for removal from office.  The House’s push for impeaching Clinton, even for making Clinton less popular, failed.

In 2012, in the crazy, convoluted kabuki politics of fiscal cliff negotiations, Speaker of the House John Boehner turned down President Obama’s second real offer, which raised taxes only on incomes over $400,000, had substantial cuts, and — appallingly to many progressives — changed the formula for cost of living increases for Social Security retirement and disability programs.

Boehner then proposed Plan B, which raised taxes only on incomes over one million dollars, while cutting food stamps and other programs for the poor. Yet he was unable to even pass this and so didn’t take it to a vote.

Why? The pressure from the far-right was too strong. It didn’t matter that poll after poll supported the president’s campaign tax proposals, raising taxes on incomes over $250,000, and people didn’t want big cuts in entitlements, while desiring a balanced approach.

Most likely, Republicans will ultimately lose this battle, too. The business community will put a good deal of pressure on them and there will be a deal — eventually — with Obama getting more of what he wants and the Republican party sinking even more in public repute.

One difference is that in 1998, House Republicans stuck together and acted. So far in 2012, they are too divided to act together. But both times, their choices embraced unpopular options, even after electoral rejections based in part on their embrace of policies citizens disliked.

Similar political dynamics affected Republicans in 1998 and 2012. Most critical has been the power of their bases, which pushes Republican legislators to take unpopular positions.

In 2013, like 1999, the House Republican caucus will be smaller than the year before. In both cases, they lost seats.

This year, House Republicans received about a million and a half fewer votes nationally than Democratic candidates. However, because the way district lines are drawn, Republicans kept their majority.

And in both 1998 and 2012, although repudiated at the polls and holding unpopular positions, Republicans acted against the popular will.

Additional note: Another difference, of course, is that Boehner, unlike Gingrich, maintained his speakership after the election. However, given his failure with the Plan B vote, he may not be able to keep his position when the House Republican caucus votes in 2013. In 1998, Gingrich had disloyal individuals within the leadership who pushed for impeachment, such as Tom DeLay. (Interestingly, Boehner was linked to a 1997 coup attempt against Gingrich.) One wonders what Eric Cantor, who wants Boehner’s job, has been doing.

This post has been edited.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.