What Trump can learn from Bill Clinton's comeback
There are lessons for our current beleaguered president in the Clinton precedent
The president's approval ratings are low. His party is about to take a beating in the midterm elections. He is being investigated by a special prosecutor and is at some risk of being impeached. Most of the country voted against him the first time and he seems unlikely to win a second term.
All of the above describes President Trump now — and Bill Clinton in 1994. Trump used Clinton as a foil throughout 2016. From here on out, Trump should use him as a model.
It is easy to forget how precarious Clinton's position once looked because he eventually became so popular. By the time 1996 rolled around, his re-election was rarely in doubt and Bob Dole's general election challenge felt more like a pre-retirement farewell tour than a presidential campaign. But just two years earlier, as Republicans took control of the Congress — including their first House majority in four decades — Clinton looked to be headed toward Jimmy Carter's fate.
As late as April 1995, reporters were asking Clinton if he was even still relevant. "The Constitution gives me relevance, the power of our ideas gives me relevance, the record we have built up over the last two years and the things we're trying to do to implement it give me relevance," he replied defensively.
Then, he turned it all around. It will undeniably be harder for Trump to do so. But there are lessons for our current beleaguered president in the Clinton precedent.
Right now, Trump is seen as the primary source of chaos in Washington. Could revivified congressional Democrats get equal billing with him? Before the Clinton investigations, Republicans precipitated showdowns that led to partial shutdowns of the federal government and turned their committees over to the investigations. They also eventually impeached the president, though failed to convict and remove him from office. It's going to be difficult for Democrats to avoid these temptations, even though their leadership desperately wants to keep the impeachment genie inside the bottle until Special Counsel Robert Mueller unearths something that could truly imperil Trump's presidency. But lots of hearings are a given — many Democrats will win in November promising to keep the president in check — and it is going to get even harder to agree on must-pass spending bills.
Clinton did everything he could to paint Ken Starr's investigation against him as a partisan exercise. In a 1998 Meet the Press appearance, Clinton adviser Paul Begala referred to the Starr probe as an "ongoing witch hunt" and called for investigating the investigators. Sound familiar? Here, Trump is already emulating Clinton. Starr was easier to portray as biased because he really was on the opposite side of the aisle to Clinton, while Mueller is a Republican (of course, so was Iran-Contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh, for all the good that did the Reagan administration). That's why Trump constantly tweets about the 13 — since revised upward to 17 — "Angry Democrats" working on the Russia investigation. Perhaps he knows the Mueller probe has tended to poll best when it is seen as least partisan.
Also, if Michael Cohen's newfound eagerness to cooperate with Mueller helps sidetrack the probe into Stormy Daniels and similar payouts to women who say they have had affairs with Trump, it could redound to the president's benefit, as when Whitewater became about Monica Lewinsky.
There are differences that make Trump's task tougher than Clinton's. He has a much more adversarial relationship with the media than Clinton ever did. Combined with his own personal lack of message discipline and a considerably weaker group of surrogates spinning for him, that makes it hard to punch back.
Finally, the deeply polarized political culture and Trump's personal divisiveness make the partisan 1990s look like a golden era of civility by comparison. In this climate, it is probably impossible for Trump to become as popular as Clinton was at his peak.
The caveat to all this is that we cannot know how likely the incumbent president is to be re-elected without knowing who the actual challenger will be — and what the opposition party will do with whatever amount of power the voters give it in the midterms. But impeachment, government shutdowns, and some unforced errors by a party seething with anger at the sitting president got Clinton back in the game. Trump has to hope it can work for him, too.