Listen to Newt. He knows that of which he speaks.
Over the weekend, the former House speaker took to the airwaves of, well, NPR (a station most GOP leaders were probably not listening to at the time) to caution his congressional successors against "appearing too eager as they dig into the scandals now dogging the Obama administration." The former speaker added a tidbit for good measure to remind the audience that he has firsthand experience in this particular area: "I think we overreached in '98. How's that for a quote you can use?"
The quote is pretty solid indeed, Mr. Speaker. And most political junkies probably remember 1998 quite well. But if you don't: This was the time the GOP practically wet itself when President Clinton perjured himself in a deposition before heading onto national television and, oozing righteous indignation, defiantly wagged his finger at the American people and denied in the most unequivocal terms that he ever "had sexual relations with THAT woman…Ms. Lewinsky."
Of course, a host of evidence gave special prosecutor Kenneth Starr enough to bring Monica Lewinsky in, and when she talked, she sang. The resulting Starr report laid to rest any question that the president of the United States was not only cheating on his wife — but he viewed himself as above the law, and lacked the integrity and the judgment to tell the American people the truth.
What followed was surreal, and it more or less derailed Clinton's final term. The House GOP jumped at the opportunity to impeach the president. But in their zeal to take down a man for behaving without integrity, judgment, morality, or common sense, the GOP managed to behave in a way that the American public ultimately decided was as or more unseemly than the behavior that gave rise to the entire fiasco in the first place. Which is why, in a much forgotten historical tidbit, Bill Clinton actually left office with a 66 percent approval rating.
Americans love a good scandal. But they can also smell opportunistic hyperbole a mile away, and they do not much care for it. Which is why, despite the offensive, demeaning, embarrassing behavior of our former president, Americans ultimately rolled their eyes when Republicans got a bit too serious with their claims that President Clinton really ought to be thrown from office. The public can tell the difference between apples and oranges, and Bill Clinton's crimes were simply of a different nature than those that would have had Richard Nixon thrown from office had he stuck around to allow the process to play out.
Which brings us to the speaker's wise advice for Republicans regarding the present three-headed predicament the White House faces: "They need to be calm and factual. For example, a [House] subcommittee ... should invite every single tea party, conservative, patriot group that was messed over by the IRS — every single one of them — to come in and testify, so that they build this deadening record of how many different people were having their rights abused by this administration."
This can be simplified: The GOP should use the fiascos for what they are — examples of an administration that is not in control of the day-to-day workings of the government, that is often incompetent and misleading, and most importantly, that does not take responsibility for the consequences of its failures.
Exhibit A: Dan Pfeiffer's imprudent and premature counterattack on the Sunday shows against Republicans for making a big deal out of events which are, by any measure, a very big deal. But the GOP should also remember the lesson of MonicaGate, and be mindful of the fact that if they try to take these three serious missteps and turn them into capital crimes, Pfeiffer's narrative will gain credibility and the American people will stop pressuring this aloof and arrogant administration to tighten up its ship. Instead, voters will punish Republicans for being too politically opportunistic with real problems that need serious-minded inquiries that lead to forward thinking proposals designed to ensure that these problems do not repeat themselves in the future.