The laws of political physics, it seemed, had been reversed.
The president had been exposed as a pathological liar and a serial cheater. The butt of relentless jokes on television comedy shows and online, his reputation and legacy in tatters, he endured the ultimate opprobrium a federal official can face under the American constitutional system, impeachment, as well as the worst indignity possible for a lawyer, disbarment.
The president, of course, was Bill Clinton. The year was 1998. But just when it seemed that he was doomed to slink off into the humiliation of single-digit approval ratings and Richard Nixon-esque oblivion, the opposite happened. Despite Monica Lewinsky and “it depends on the meaning of is” and impeachment, Democrats didn’t abandon him. To the contrary, they came to his defense.
Senate Democrats refused to ratify impeachment with a formal conviction. Liberal voters, including many whose support for Clinton had been tepid at best, rallied around a president they thought had been unfairly and excessively targeted by a partisan independent counsel, Ken Starr. They didn’t care that Clinton, an attorney, had lied under oath in a legal proceeding over a credible sexual harassment allegation. Republicans, they believed, had weaponized the legal system and the constitutional process over a minor personal matter in order to kneecap the leader of their party and, by extension, discredit liberalism as a whole.
As the impeachment process dragged on, Clinton’s team deployed political jujitsu embodied by Hillary’s description of the crisis as having been caused not by her husband’s affair with Lewinsky or his lying about it under oath, but by vicious Republicans and their “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Clinton’s approval ratings soared to 70%, an all-time high. “Clinton’s resilient popularity presents a puzzle,” Pew Research’s Molly Sonner and Clyde Wilcox of Georgetown University wrote in 1999. “Why, in the midst of a tawdry scandal, were his approval ratings so high?”
Now Democrats are asking themselves similar questions about Donald Trump, whose approval ratings among Republicans have increased following each round of criminal indictments, like a Hydra that grows several heads to replace each one you cut off. Republicans aren’t ditching Trump. They love him more than ever. To the New York Times, “These series of falling dominoes—call it the indictment effect—can be measured in ways that reveal much about the state of the Republican Party.”
“The rally around the flag is not a new phenomenon in American politics, but Donald Trump has certainly taken it to a new level,” Tony Fabrizio, a GOP pollster who works for Trump’s super PAC, told the Times.
Perhaps. But it was Bill Clinton, who socialized with Trump for decades, who first demonstrated that a clever politician, no matter how beleaguered or which party he leads, can frame specific charges against his person as a partisan attack against all his supporters. For Democrats in 1999, Clinton may have been a jerk—but he was their jerk, and they would be damned before they let the Republicans, whom they despised, destroy him.
Republicans in 2023 are playing out a similar dynamic.
Unlike Trump, who never admits fault, Clinton issued half-hearted apologies of the “I’m sorry you’re upset” variety. “I take my responsibility for my part in all of this,” he said after conceding that, after having declared that he had not had sex with “that woman, Monica Lewinsky,” in fact, he had had oral sex. “That is all I can do. Now is the time—in fact, it is past time—to move on,” he argued. To Republicans’ disgust, Clinton’s plea resonated with Democrats. MoveOn.org, the liberal policy group and PAC, began as an email petition group that asked Congress to “Censure President Clinton and Move On to Pressing Issues Facing the Nation.” It was one of the first political viral sensations on the Internet.
By any objective standard, the Republicans’ impeachment effort backfired, beginning with the 1998 midterms. “The Republicans were all full of themselves going into the election,” then–Democratic Representative Martin Frost of Texas, who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told The Atlantic. “They expected to pick up 20 or 30 seats.” They got clobbered.
Most analysts cite 2000 Democratic nominee Al Gore’s reluctance to embrace Clinton and understand that he had been rehabilitated as one of the vice president’s major campaign mistakes; indeed, Clinton might have won a third term had he been allowed to run again. In 2001 Clinton left office with the joint-highest approval rating of any modern president, along with FDR and Ronald Reagan. He became a sought-after speaker and eminence grise within his party. A recent YouGov poll finds that 49% of respondents like him, compared to 32% dislikes.
There are numerous differences between Clinton’s sex-tinged scandal and Trump’s legal challenges. But the reactions of their respective partisans—circle the wagons, stand by their man, ignore the facts, screw the other party—are strikingly analogous.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, co-hosts the left-vs-right DMZ America podcast with fellow cartoonist Scott Stantis. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)