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Did Clinton’s Impeachment Actually Hurt Republicans?

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After the Senate refused to remove him in early 1999, Clinton’s job approval remained around a buoyant 60 percent through the rest of his presidency. But that strong number coexisted with substantial public disapproval of the personal behavior that the Starr investigation and the impeachment inquiry had highlighted.

Those personal doubts about the outgoing president cast a huge shadow over the election to succeed him—a dynamic usually omitted in the equation portraying Clinton’s impeachment solely as a self-inflicted wound for Republicans. Those doubts led the Gore campaign to conclude they could neither campaign with Clinton nor deploy him extensively as a surrogate.

“It wasn’t just impeachment, it was the feeling that Clinton wasn’t telling the truth to people,” Devine said. “Gore was hurt by that association. Everybody who said the economy was so good, you should just run on Clinton’s record—they weren’t sitting in focus groups in swing states, listening to these swing voters who were concerned there would be a continuation of that [behavior].”

Both Devine and Dowd note that Bush’s constant pledge to restore presidential honor and dignity skillfully tapped that unease without fully embracing the divisiveness of impeachment itself. “It became a very valuable tool even though Bush didn’t go around saying ‘impeachment, impeachment,’” Devine said. “He took the bad stuff from impeachment and put it front and center [in the campaign]. What could Gore say? ‘I’ll restore honor too?’”

The exit polls in 2000 showed how much that refrain helped Bush with voters conflicted about Clinton. Gore carried 85 percent of the voters who both approved of Clinton’s job performance and expressed favorable views of him personally. But Bush carried one-third of the voters who liked Clinton’s performance but disliked him personally. That’s a much higher than usual level of defection from the president’s party among voters who approve of his performance, and in 2000 those voters represented about one-fifth of the entire electorate.

Bush reaped another benefit from the impeachment, Dowd believes: high turnout among Republicans frustrated that Clinton remained in office. “The lack of success on impeachment created a greater hunger, a greater motivation among the base to exact punishment in some way,” says Dowd, now the chief political analyst for ABC News. “And Al Gore became part of that process.”

Despite widespread satisfaction with the economy, all of these factors helped Bush finish just behind Gore in the popular vote and win the Electoral College (after the disputed recount in Florida). Though Republicans lost another two House seats in 2000, they again maintained control of the chamber’s majority—and again narrowly won the nationwide House popular vote. Only in the Senate did the GOP slip, losing five seats that initially created a 50-50 tie until Jeffords’ switch gave Democrats a majority.

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