Much has been written comparing the present health care reform effort to prior struggles for the same thing. But this week’s passage of the Senate’s version of Obamacare brought to mind another recent political circumstance that, for me, says more about the political risks in play than does the failure of Hillarycare in 1993.
I speak of the impeachment of President Clinton, 1998. Of course, the process and the subject matter have nothing to do with health care. But the politics do. You may remember that the House vote to impeach President Clinton was the last thing Congress did before adjourning for Christmas in 1998. I recall this distinctly, because I was driving south to Georgia from Washington with two of my friends and fellow Congressional staffers, listening to the debate and then the vote in favor of impeachment on a scratchy car radio.
It was a moment full of mixed emotions. We wanted to be happy, because we all felt strongly that Clinton’s presidency should end after a year of lying and political manipulation. We also knew that the public wasn’t so sure. Polls had shown for months that Americans were largely against impeachment, but Republicans had resolutely pushed forward, certain that their solid factual and legal case against the President would carry the day in the end. In fact, there was almost a morose, melancholy, martyred feeling to it all — while Republicans felt they were doing what they had to do, and that it was in everyone’s best interest, those who should be the most appreciative were instead rejecting them. Even members of their own party were beginning to question the wisdom of impeachment. In the midst of the Christmas season, the impeachment managers’ doomed quest took on a bit of a religious tinge.
Compare this to today’s mood in Washington and the country at large. In Washington, Democrats are throwing themselves victory parties, trying to gin up public support for a plan that average Americans have considered a boondoggle since September. Democrats have long since given up saying that the public wants what they are selling (setting aside Harry Reid, of course, whose brain is so fried he voted against his own bill). Instead, they insist on extolling the historic moment, promising that great things will come of this, even if Americans don’t agree with them today. It also became obvious that Reid was desirous of a Christmas Eve vote, to give his caucus the chance to talk of the Senate’s present to the nation.
The impending political consequences of the two big votes are also similar. While neither the impeachment vote in the House nor the Senate’s passage of Reid’s bill could independently yield practical results, they both presaged the focus of debate in Washington in the coming year. In 1998, new political organs, like Moveon.org, were emerging to fill the void left by months of Democrats’ stunned silence in the wake of the Lewinsky allegations. Those groups, which would become the dominant liberal political force in the country for the next decade, were already promising electoral armageddon against the House impeachment managers. Even rank and file Democrats had begun to find their voice after months of feeling chastened by their unchaste President’s peccadilloes. No one believed that impeachment, regardless of how it came out in the end, would benefit Republicans at the polls in 2000. The only question was whether the Senate would compound the Republicans’ political error.
Health care, by comparison, has mobilized conservatives in ways considered unthinkable in early 2009. New groups, such as the Tea Party movement, took up the slack in the beginning when Republicans were overcoming their post-Bush hangover. Now, those groups appear ready to fund and support serious candidates and causes in the coming year. At the same time, Republicans have retaken the mantle of fiscal sanity, and independent voters have rallied to them. No one believes that health care reform, whether successful or no, will be a boon to Democrats next November. The question remaining is whether Obama and Congress will push too many too far out on the plank so as to lose the majority entirely.
As a final comparison, I’d remind us all of what was being ignored in both cases. At the same time impeachment was dominating the Washington scene, Osama bin Laden was plotting to take down the World Trade Center. The last seeds were being sown for the tech bubble to burst in 1999 and 2000. And the poisonous atmosphere that developed in the wake of impeachment gave license to both sides to unleash a wave of ethics investigations, smear campaigns, and over-the-top theatrics that continue to dominate our politics.
Here we are, 11 years later, and after a year of campaigning on an end to such tactics, Democrats are using every trick in the book to pass what amounts to a regulatory takedown of one-sixth of the American economy on a party-line vote. Rather than seeking to bring the country together, Democrats are content to go it alone, castigating those in their own party who refuse to go along. All the while, unemployment hovers around 10%, real estate appears headed for a second collapse, the dollar is falling precipitously, and no one appears to know how to solve our budget crisis. The selfsame Osama Bin Laden continues to plot his next attack.
I do not present this comparison as a way to suggest that impeachment was right, or even that health care is wrong. Instead, it is a worthwhile reminder that sometimes doing what one party believes is right doesn’t mean it’s right for the moment, for the nation, or even for the party itself.
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