Sixth-year midterms are nearly always rough for the incumbent president’s party. It’s so common – and so predictable – that political scientists gave the phenomenon a name: the “six-year itch.”
I put together this chart showing every sixth-year administration of the last century and how their party fared in the congressional midterms. Blue columns are for Democratic administrations; red columns are for Republican administrations. The darker color shows House losses; the lighter color shows Senate losses. (I went ahead and combined Nixon and Ford since Ford was sworn in during Nixon’s sixth year, just a few months before the 1974 midterms.)
If past is prologue, this isn’t a pretty picture for the Obama White House. You’ll notice, however, that there’s one notable exception: in 1998, Clinton’s Democratic Party bucked the historical trend and actually gained House seats, while leaving the Senate unchanged. It was the first time since the dawn of the two-party system in which this happened.
And given recent events, it’s worth appreciating why 1998 unfolded as it did.
Clinton clearly benefited from an economic boom, created in part by an economic agenda Republicans opposed and insisted would fail. By Election Day 1998, the national unemployment rate was just 4.4%.
But in 1998, congressional Republicans, cheered on by a rabid base, spent much of the election year preoccupied with investigating the White House, hoping to destroy the president through manufactured scandals. It motivated the Democratic base to do something unusual – show up to vote in a midterm cycle – while GOP antics annoyed the public at large. The result was a midterm cycle like no other.
And if you’re thinking these circumstances sound a little familiar, there are some similarities to the landscape 16 years later.
In 2014, as in 1998, a House Republican majority seems far more interested in witch hunts against a Democratic White House than governing. In 2014, as in 1998, an unpopular GOP has struggled to put together a policy agenda of its own.
And in 2014, as in 1998, Republicans are casually throwing around the “I” word. Dave Weigel reported overnight that Fox News is talking up presidential impeachment and it’s not alone.
The only thing that tamps down impeachment talk is the fear of a backlash, of looking crazy – of looking like former Rep. Dan Burton, basically. Ever since Republicans took back the House of Representatives, Speaker of the House John Boehner has fretted that one of their investigations would veer into the same fever swamp where Burton shot at pumpkins to re-enact theories about the death of Vince Foster. Boehner, elected in 1990, remembers how Republicans bet the entire 1998 election on the impeachment of Bill Clinton, and how their subsequent surprise defeat ended the speakership of Newt Gingrich.“We’re probably one email away from Benghazi being an impeachable offense for much of our party,” fretted Republican lobbyist Ed Rogers in 2012, right after Obama’s re-election. “I think that’s nuts, but that’s where we are right now.”That’s why Boehner’s endorsement of the select committee on Benghazi was so significant. “At one time,” former Rep. Pete Hoekstra told Newsmax, “Speaker Boehner said, if there’s any indication that that this leads to the White House, you know we’re going to go after this.” Boehner knew that Democrats would spend the next few months or years deriding a “witch hunt,” just as they mocked the Clinton impeachment.And that’s also why the backup from Fox News matters, and why more conservatives will join the discussion. Next month the attorney and National Review columnist Andrew McCarthy will publish Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment. “There is a rich legal case,” writes McCarthy, “but impeachment is not about what the law allows. Impeachment is a matter of political will.”
For those who take reality seriously, those who see the 2012 Benghazi attack – or any of the related political “controversies” the GOP relies on for fundraising and cheap applause lines – as grounds for possible impeachment is stark raving mad. There is no credible controversy here. The deadly attack in Libya 20 months ago has been investigated, repeatedly, and the conspiracy theories have been discredited.
But because House Republicans have decided the first eight investigations weren’t enough, and now it’s time for yet another committee to do what other committees have already done, it’s generated the “impeachment” chatter the right has long craved.
With 1998 in mind, there’s a feeling of deja vu, only this time, there’s no evidence to suggest the Democratic president did anything wrong whatsoever.
Time will tell whether this serves as a wake-up call for Democratic voters who planned to sit this cycle out, but if House Republicans don’t appreciate the extent to which they’re playing with electoral fire, they’re not paying close enough attention.