For Democrats, the only thing more depressing than Donald Trump’s impeachment is the public’s apathy about it.
All the revelations, lies, and cover-ups haven’t changed anyone’s mind. Support for impeachment almost exactly tracks opposition to Trump. Most Republicans, according to polls, remain unmoved even though they acknowledge Trump acted illegally. With no sign that 67 senators—i.e., 20 Republicans—will vote to convict, there’s a strong sense of despair out there.
But Democrats can take heart in knowing that conservatives felt this way when Bill Clinton was impeached and acquitted in 1998, and they rebounded just two years later.
Although Clinton’s crimes may seem petty compared with Trump’s (though less so in the MeToo era than before), social conservatives in particular believed that he had profoundly tarnished the office of the presidency.
Thanks to the strong-arm investigative tactics of Kenneth Starr and Brett Kavanaugh, everyone who read the news learned that the president had a young White House intern put a cigar in her vagina, right there in the Oval Office. Then the president lied about it, wagging his finger at a press conference, telling us he “did not have sexual relations with that woman.” He lied under oath as well.
And the public didn’t care.
Speaker Newt Gingrich boasted that Republicans would pick up 30 seats as the party spent 1998 moving toward impeachment. Instead, they lost five, barely retaining control of the chamber, and Gingrich resigned. (He was replaced, let us remember, by the serial child molester Dennis Hastert.)
And then, of course, Clinton was acquitted by the Senate.
The result was a conservative gnashing of teeth that sounds a lot like progressives in 2020. Clinton’s acquittal, and the victory of congressional Democrats who supported him, convinced many social conservatives that something had gone profoundly wrong with our country. So profound that it warranted a reexamination of how conservatives should even relate to it.
Perhaps the most famous of these reflections came from Paul Weyrich, one of the creators of the New Christian Right—the politicized, engaged movement of conservative evangelicals and Catholics that ascended in the 1970s, and put Ronald Reagan (and, later, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump) into the White House.
In a much-publicized letter published four days after Clinton’s acquittal, Weyrich wrote: “I believe that we probably have lost the culture war. That doesn’t mean the war is not going to continue, and that it isn’t going to be fought on other fronts. But in terms of society in general, we have lost. This is why, even when we win in politics, our victories fail to translate into the kind of policies we believe are important.”
As a result, Weyrich—who, again, pioneered conservative Christian engagement in politics—advocated quitting politics. Not only that, but quitting culture as well, “bypassing the institutions that are controlled by the enemy.”
“We need to drop out of this culture,” Weyrich wrote, “and find places, even if it is where we physically are right now, where we can live godly, righteous and sober lives.”
Among other changes, the explosive growth of the right-wing home-schooling movement, which in 1999 was still a relatively fringe phenomenon, can largely be traced to this letter.
But it wasn’t just Weyrich.
In a 1998 interview with the Washington Post’s David Broder and Richard Morin, David Blankenhorn—who would later become one of the leading opponents of marriage equality before changing his mind in 2012—said that the reaction to Clinton demonstrates that “many middle-class Americans obey an 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not judge. They view morality as a private matter. What I find troublesome is that… apart from treason, there is nothing worse than a democratic leader engaging in ongoing public lying. And yet, a substantial number of Americans have accepted this.”
Broder and Morin concluded, “the divided public verdict on the Clinton case represents not just a legal argument about the standards for impeachment and removal of a president, or a partisan battle between Republicans and Democrats, but also an unresolved debate about fundamental values.”
Today, of course, the moral concerns have flipped. The same social conservatives who, in 1998, emphasized the personal morality of political leaders, give Trump a pass on his record of marital infidelity, fraud, vulgarity, lying, boasting of sexual harassment, and, now, the strong-arming of U.S. allies for personal political gain.
Now it’s Democrats who are pointing to the president’s moral flaws, and Republicans looking past them.
Indeed, one of the most potent tools in Democrats’ 2020 toolkits is capitalizing on the moral qualms of moderate Republicans and Democrats. (One organization called Changing The Conversation literally goes door-to-door to do just that, and has had success in Maryland and red-leaning Staten Island, New York. “When we listen to swing voters talk about their profound ethical qualms with Trump,” one CTC volunteer told me, “it is often the starting point of the conversation that leads them to change their minds about him.”)
Which, ultimately, may be the best response to the despair many of us are feeling right now: holding politicians to political account for their ethical transgressions.
After all, just 18 months after Weyrich’s letter, a born-again conservative Christian won the presidential election (with the help of the Supreme Court, anyway). It’s difficult to measure how much disgust with Clinton’s conduct motivated the Republican base to turn out for Bush, or tarnished the candidacy of Al Gore, but at the very least, the political winds did shift.
Perhaps 20 years later, after another impeachment storm comes and goes, they may be poised to shift again.