Republicans are counting on Obama’s unpopularity to deliver them control of the Senate. Some conservatives are unhappy about that. In an editorial today, National Review complains that this approach “will not maximize the Republican opportunity, because it does nothing to dispel the public’s justifiable doubts about whether Republican rule would be good for the country.”
This strategy is essentially the same one Republicans followed in 1998, when they broke the usual pattern by losing seats in the middle of a president’s second term. That was the year of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The conventional wisdom holds that Republicans ran on a platform of removing Clinton from office and lost because the public hated that idea.
But that’s not exactly what happened. The public did indeed want to keep Clinton in the presidency, and Democrats ran against scandal politics. Republicans, however, knew that the public wanted to keep Clinton in office: 66 percent of the public in a Gallup survey that October said they approved of the job he was doing. Republicans also knew that voters nonetheless disapproved of Clinton’s character, with 68 percent of respondents telling Pew the same month that they did not like him “personally.” So Republicans did not promise to remove him, and instead ran ads saying that voting for them would punish him and keep him in check.
The Republicans didn’t run on any agenda in 1998, just as they are not running on one today. Their campaign message, boiled down, was: If you don’t like the president, vote for us. It didn’t work. The Democrats got their voters to the polls to defend the president while the Republicans’ message did not motivate theirs. Republicans had hoped to pick up 25 House seats but lost 5.
Some Republicans argue that they are better off not running on an agenda. They think it’s the height of political wisdom not to interfere with an opponent who is self-destructing. These people always raise the 2006 elections to illustrate their point. They say that running against a president, without an agenda, won a congressional landslide for the Democrats that year. In fact, though, the Democrats did run on an agenda that year, including funding for stem-cell research, tax hikes on “Big Oil,” and a higher minimum wage. And the opposition Democrats were more popular back than the Republicans are today.
Of course, the 1998 parallel I’ve been drawing has its limits too. Obama has much lower job-approval ratings than Clinton did. The risk Republicans are running is not that they will lose seats. It’s that they will blow their opportunity.