House Republicans Govern Like It’s 1998, Worrying ManyBut you know they will end this somehow. And as soon as they do, regardless of who gets John Boehner's jobm, as long as House Republicans aren't actively calling for a military coup against the president or literally burning government buildings to the ground, there'll be a rash of softball feature stories in the mainstream media with titles like "Republicans Regroup, with Second Chance to Prove They Can Govern."
... Representative Kevin McCarthy’s abrupt withdrawal from a speaker’s race he was favored to win ... echoed the stunning events of December 1998, when another Republican speaker-in-waiting, Representative Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana, was forced to withdraw because of marital infidelities. Republicans scrambled to find an acceptable consensus pick, and J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois was plucked from out of almost nowhere to become speaker of the House.
... But in 1998, House Republicans had a strongman in their majority whip, Tom DeLay of Texas, to rally the rank and file behind his choice. No such figure exists today.
Some Republicans worried that the current unraveling might be even worse than 1998, which played out in a crisis atmosphere as the House was voting to impeach President Bill Clinton.
“Even then we knew we could resolve it ourselves,” said Representative Pete King, Republican of New York. “But now you have a situation where there are 30 or 40 people in their own party who say they are not going to vote for anyone no matter who it is. We have to end this. We look absolutely crazy.”
The events of 1998 were supposedly terrible for the GOP -- there were shocking losses in the midterms followed by an unpopular impeachment of the president and a failed Senate trial. But what was the political mood then? Jonathan Chait remembers:
The Democratic Party spent 1999 in a state of almost unbroken panic. Even while an incumbent Democrat had presided over an economic boom that delivered the greatest prosperity Americans had enjoyed in decades, they could not escape a sour cynicism pervading the electorate. Al Gore, President Clinton’s chosen successor, trailed Republicans badly throughout the year and faced a stubborn threat from within his own party....Does that sound familiar? It should -- Chait's point is that we seem to be reliving that era, with Hillary Clinton, like Al Gore, as the target of a trumped-up scandal endlessly flogged by Republicans. (I agree with Chait on this.)
The mechanism that transferred Clinton’s well-known moral failings onto his vice-president was an exceedingly technical fund-raising scandal. Gore made fund-raising calls for the Democratic Party from the White House, which did not violate either the letter or the spirit of the law (the Pendleton Act, which was intended to prevent shaking down potential officeholders for donations). But reporters found Gore’s performance untrustworthy anyway. The vice-president, reported the New York Times in 1997, “used legalistic language, which he repeated verbatim several times, to say he had not violated another law that prohibits anybody from raising campaign money in the White House.” As a result, scandal-tinged themes came to dominate news coverage of Gore. His attempts to create new narratives merely resulted in chortling reporters mocking him for trying too hard to reshape his image, reinforcing their theme that he lacked “authenticity.”
This happened in the late 1990s despite a leadership crisis among congressional Republicans, and despite Republicans' apparent compulsion to pursue unpopular extremist measures as if they just couldn't help themselves. All that was true, and yet it didn't hurt the GOP. Republicans had Gore on the ropes throughout the campaign. He eked out a popular-vote win in 2000 but still didn't become president. The GOP controlled all three branches of government for most of the next six years.
So enjoy the Republicans' crisis while it lasts. Unless it lasts all the way through the fall of 2016, it will be a non-factor in the election, just as the 2013 shutdown was a non-factor in 2014. Liberal and centrist voters have no long-term memory for this sort of thing. The mainstream press always wants to revert to the preferred narrative: that the GOP is a sane, responsible party. There would probably have to be tanks in the streets in late 2016, with Louis Gohmert as the lead driver, before GOP chaos had an electoral effect.