A new year invites examination, a moment to compare the present to the past to discover patterns that forecast the future. In 2018, certain patterns are already emerging, with time coordinates leading back two decades.
In 1998, the “information superhighway” advanced communication, magazines like George filled bookstore shelves, the economic boom seemed boundless, and the country enjoyed a deceptive post-Cold War peace. It was also the year dial-up speeds accelerated news digestion, the media raged into a dervish frenzy over a presidential scandal, and a political party miscalculated its electoral destiny.
It’s difficult to project certainty about the future, but one cannot help but draw comparisons between 2018 and 1998. The new year, like 1998, will be dominated by a well-established prosecutor leading an extensive investigation into the presidency. The scandal will enrapture cable news.
If history demonstrates, the audience will ultimately become fatigued, disinterested, and even frustrated. The opposing party of the White House, endowed with moral certitude, will believe its reward awaits at the polls. But 1998 reminds us that Election Day can be an unpredictable civic exercise.
Revisiting the Year of Monica Lewinsky
The comparison begins with former U.S. Solicitor General Kenneth Starr, who oversaw a multi-year endeavor to expose the corruption of the Clinton administration. Republicans, having held Congress since victory in 1994, hoped to extinguish the legitimacy of Clinton’s presidency by exposing misconduct. Their wish appeared granted when Starr’s investigation discovered Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
In January the Drudge Report, still in its online infancy, revealed how Newsweek, then a magazine powerhouse, was sitting on the story of Clinton’s affair with the 22-year-old intern. The White House became a crisis communications bunker, as cable news and websites exploded over the sensational revelations. Clinton forcefully denied the affair in public remarks before his State of the Union address. On NBC’s “Today,” Hillary Clinton attributed the scandal to a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”
This didn’t forestall the media bonanza. The media was rapidly evolving as a result of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The landmark legislation was intended to increase competition for telecom companies, relax the rules for cross-ownership, and increase the burgeoning development of broadband cable. The bill paved the path for the modern media ecosystem, contributing to how telephone, cable, and media companies merge and operate today. But in 1998, this Information Age remained primitive compared to today’s landscape.
This landscape exhausted the public’s daily consumption of the Clinton-Lewinsky saga. The frenzy only increased when Clinton admitted his improper relationship in grand jury testimony that August. The public learned all the bizarre, sordid details of that affair on September 11—then just another day on the calendar—when Starr released his investigative report.
Clinton’s dishonesty in public and under oath prompted calls for impeachment based on perjury and obstruction of justice. By December, he became the first president to be impeached by the House since Andrew Johnson in 1868, but was subsequently acquitted by the Senate.
The media cycle now revolves around Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading an investigation into the Trump administration. The prevailing question is whether Russia and the Trump campaign worked together during the 2016 election. Although the investigation continues, center-left media has already answered the question. The media has become part of this ongoing saga, which makes the talking head culture of 1998 look archaic.
To debate the definition of collusion, how Russia waged its attack, or who coordinated with a foreign entity to shape the electoral result elicits scorn. The narrative vociferously discounts any attempts to suggest that Democrats simply ran a poor campaign in 2016.
As Matthew Walther recently wrote in The Week, “Start with an irresistible general narrative, sprinkle in some suitably exotic if unconfirmable details about obviously grotesque characters, quote a handful of decontextualized communications, throw in some legalese that you don’t understand, and you have an appalling scandal that deserves the attention of the entire American public, one that makes a mockery of the august values upon which this country was founded.”
Trump’s decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey—which former White House strategist Steve Bannon declared the “dumbest political decision in modern political history”—only intensified the scrutiny. Similar to Clinton in 1998, Trump is haunted by daily chatter that he obstructed justice or could face impeachment.
Mueller’s investigation, meanwhile, has resulted in unrelated indictments. New developments could certainly prove far more consequential than an extramarital affair. But Democrats, like Republicans in 1998, believe focusing on the Russian story will deliver widespread congressional victories in November and absolve them of Hillary’s stunning defeat.
Anti-Trump Is Democrats’ Sole Play
Democrats enter a midterm election year replicating the Republican playbook of the late 1990s. The party’s obsession with bringing down Trump has extinguished any coherent political strategy. Their fixation with the Russia story is really a daily prayer that Trump will be impeached, invalidating what happened in 2016. In the London Review of Books, Rutgers University Professor Jackson Lears wrote that “Trump’s election has created a permanent emergency in the liberal imagination, based on the belief that the threat he poses is unique and unprecedented.”
Certain Republicans shared this sentiment about Clinton in 1998. In the 1990s, the late Richard Mellon Scaife—billionaire heir to the Mellon banking fortune—spent millions to unearth Clinton scandals. Two decades later, it is Tom Steyer, the billionaire hedge fund manager, delivering nightly pleas on television, solemnly imploring cable news viewers to join the cause to impeach Trump.
The difference between 1998 and 2018 is the media’s response to the opposing party’s attempts to challenge the presidency. In 1998, mainstream reporters were turned off by the often unsubstantiated allegations. In 2018, the media shares the opposing party’s outrage, and reports accordingly.
The Media Then Versus the Media Now
The media has transformed since 1998. In the late 1990s, updates about Clinton’s fate required unfolding a newspaper, dialing America Online on a bulky desktop, tuning into Congress on C-SPAN, or flipping to cable news on a television.
News consumption is now a virtual appendage that overwhelms even the most devoted media junkie. Each day begins the same way, like the dreaded blaring of Sonny and Cher on the radio alarm clock in “Groundhog Day.” Trump issues his tweets at dawn, the morning shows react, reporters scramble to analyze or break news throughout the day, and the exhausted and polarized masses turn to cable news for a biased nightcap.
News accessibility and its attendant saturation are partially the result of how media companies planned their future in the late 1990s. But 20 years of uninterrupted media mergers are now drawing scrutiny. The Federal Communications Commission’s recent repeal of net neutrality rules intensifies this debate.
With Trump as president, Democrats also question social media, once heralded as a democratic platform for the voiceless. When out of power, however, they consider Facebook and Twitter gutters of Russian trolls and bots feeding memes to angry and easily impressionable voters.
It’s Possible to Overdo the Manufactured Anger
But Democrats’ anger remains misdirected. Trump’s controversies, the Russian story, and social media’s power still fail to account for the party’s inability to process the electorate’s resentment in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Republicans faced a similar identity crisis in 1998, when their efforts to delegitimize Clinton obfuscated any clear policy positions.
The GOP’s relentless drive to remove Clinton from office turned the public against them. Voters were exhausted by the media coverage. What resulted was the first time a non-presidential party failed to gain congressional seats in a midterm election. When the House proceeded with Clinton’s impeachment, polls showed the president’s approval rating approaching 75 percent.
In 2018, Democrats have no real message. Their closest attempt occurred last August with the laughable “Better Deal” platform. Senate and House Democrats presented a pro-working class plank, hoping to recover a voting coalition lost amidst identity politics in 2016. But the platform is largely forgotten, with Democrats now believing that Roy Moore’s Senate loss in Alabama portends a favorable future. They are basing their electoral destiny on the most flawed candidate in contemporary American politics.
Hubris Feeds An Opponent’s Resiliency
Since Moore’s defeat, media-induced enthusiasm not only distracts Democrats from developing a message, but also raising money. As The Wall Street Journal recently reported, the Democratic National Committee only had $6.3 million on-hand as of December 1, compared to the Republican National Committee’s $40 million.
The RNC’s cash advantage parallels the strength of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the House Republican “super PAC” embarking on a $10 million advertising campaign in competitive districts. Democrats hope to reverse their misfortune, as outgoing Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe told the Journal: “I have heard a lot of donors say they need to take a break.”
Of course, history consistently demonstrates that the president’s party typically loses congressional seats in midterm elections. There are enough competitive Republican-held seats in California, the Mid-Atlantic, and scattered throughout the country to make retaining the House a challenge. But the path to a majority isn’t the 1998 playbook.
As the new year commences, both parties find themselves situated in a position oddly reminiscent of that period. The economy remains healthy, the stock market thrives, and employment levels appear stable. Just like 1998, the ratings-driven media continues to panic over White House revelations while foreign policy crises loom.
Back then, it was U.S. embassy bombings and the rise of al-Qaeda. Today, it’s North Korea’s nuclear proliferation, tension in the Middle East driven by Saudi Arabia and Iran, Ukraine’s precarious position with Russia, and China’s rising power. All these remind us that the year will deliver unexpected events and political developments. They also show that revisiting 1998 presents a worthy history lesson of one party’s hubris and another president’s resiliency.