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WWCD: What Would Clinton Do?

05/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The party of Lincoln has spoken. Secession-threatening Governor Rick Perry will get another shot at leading the nation's second largest state. If Democrats play this right, Perry's primary victory could prove to be a pivot point in the 2010 midterm elections.

To turn this year's punishing electoral environment to its advantage, the Democratic party might learn some lessons from the 1998 midterms, when their prospects seemed equally dismal. The sixth year of a two-term president is typically an awful year for his party in Congress. (Democrats lost 71 seats in the House in FDR's sixth year, for example.) But in 1998, the Democrats defied history and performed better than any similarly situated party since 1822. The GOP lost seats, in a voter backlash against Kenneth Starr's sexual witch-hunt and impeachment threats. Election analysis showed that the GOP handling of impeachment and the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal inclined the many anti-impeachment Independents and Republicans to either stay home or vote against the GOP. (The numbers were crunched by political scientist Alan I. Abramowitz, one of the nation's savviest election analysts.) Although polls from the start of the scandal consistently showed roughly two-thirds of voters opposing President Bill Clinton's resignation, against impeachment, and approving of the job he was doing as president, the GOP bulldozed ahead.

Why did the GOP pursue this obviously self-destructive path? The rightwing base of the party demanded it as the price of their support. Feeling emboldened by Clinton's travails, conservative GOP activists brooked no compromise from their endangered elected representatives.

If Democrats had run scared, the 1998 election could easily have turned out differently. To Clinton's credit, he resisted entreaties by pundits and some fellow Democrats to resign. Clinton framed a compelling message and convinced anxious Democrats to go along: the GOP was showing cavalier disregard for the American constitution and the will of the voters in its attempt to remove a popular president over an issue 63% of Americans regarded as a private matter. Democratic candidates forcefully reminded voters that Clinton had delivered, even in the face of a hostile Republican Congress.

Democrats learned that calling out the extremists on the Right is electoral gold. But this year they can't rely solely on reasonable Republicans and Independents staying home in disgust. They have to motivate Democrats to vote.

Today's extremists--Perry, Senator Jim Bunning, the Tea Party, birthers, IRS suicide-bombers, and the like--have handed Democrats an opportunity to turn the current midterm scenario around. Talking explicitly about what's at stake should the GOP win back control of Congress will motivate the disaffected to vote, albeit less from hope than well-founded fear. Bunning's filibuster against unemployment benefits, besides giving voters a taste of what they might be in for with a GOP Congress, has made it easier for Democrats to overcome GOP obstructionism. Should Democrats seize the moment to pass an improved health care reform bill, they could begin to reclaim the affection of Democratic activists and wipe out the enthusiasm gap.

Democrats have reason to be cautiously optimistic at this week's turn of events, but only if they step up their game and stop cowering in fear over their electoral fate. In recent months the GOP Right, just as it did in 1998, has made it impossible for conservative Republicans to run on a pragmatic conservatism that might appeal beyond the party's dwindling base. The Tea Party, and extremists exploiting its media sparkle and inexperienced recruits, have pushed Republicans to take ever more extreme positions.

Just as Clinton did, Democrats must speak out with patriotic indignation about Republican politicians who pander to extremists for their own partisan advancement. Besides helping the party come November, it's the right thing to do.