Mindful of a disaster in 1998, some Republicans warn against demonizing Obama next year
Some right-wing zealots in the Republican Party think they can make hay in next year’s mid-term elections by attacking President Obama at every turn.
But there are others in the party who remember how a similar campaign strategy against then-President Bill Clinton was a flop in 1998.
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His name won’t be on any ballot in 2014. Or ever again, for that matter.
But plenty of Republicans are still eager to wage a midterm campaign against President Obama, convinced that the spate of recent troubles dogging his second term will drive voters into their arms next year.
“Now, we’re seeing the arrogance. We’re seeing the cronyism in practice in this second term,” Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin recently asserted, sounding a lot like his vice-presidential candidate self from 2012, when Republicans spent a good deal of time attacking the president as a self-satisfied autocrat who used his power to reward friends and punish enemies.
Not everyone in the party, however, is so sure that they can expand their ranks in Congress or improve their standing among voters by personally attacking the president, whose likability ratings stand near 80 percent even if only half of Americans approve of his job performance. And they are cautioning their fellow party members to avoid building their campaigns around the same kinds of messages that have fallen flat before.
“I don’t think I’d personalize it,” said John Linder, the former congressman from Georgia who ran the National Republican Congressional Committee during the late 1990s while Newt Gingrich and House Republicans were preparing an impeachment case against President Bill Clinton. Mr. Linder said he fought and lost a battle with Mr. Gingrich over their strategy in the 1998 midterm elections, which Mr. Gingrich thought should be focused on assailing Mr. Clinton’s character.
“I didn’t want to talk about Clinton at all,” Mr. Linder recalled, saying the same logic should apply today. “Obama was not in the Justice Department. Obama was not working in the I.R.S.” His advice? “Don’t overreach,” he said.
In the fall of 1998, Republicans poured tens of millions of dollars into a television ad campaign with slogans like “Honesty does matter,” a thinly veiled reference to Mr. Clinton’s duplicity about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
They lost big that year, and it marked the first time since 1822 that the party that held the White House gained seats in the House of Representatives during a second term. Usually the president’s party loses representation in Congress in midterm elections.