What I mean is this: the Republican impeachment disaster ultimately helped elect George W. Bush. It did so in two ways. First, although Americans blamed Republicans more for the debacle, it made everyone in Washington look awful. Americans hated the partisan knife-fighting. They hated how small their leaders looked. All of which made them more receptive to an anti-Washington message than they should have been in 2000 given the booming economy. Running against a de facto incumbent in Al Gore, Bush put frustration with Washington at the center of his campaign. He boasted endlessly about how he had worked with Democrats in Texas, and promised to be a “uniter not a divider,” something Gore—who had been present for the impeachment train wreck—could not.
But the impeachment fiasco didn’t only make it possible for Bush to run against Washington. It made it possible for him to run against Republican Washington, and thus develop a brand separate from the national GOP. In 1996, Bill Clinton had tied Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole to Gingrich. But in 2000, Bush made that impossible by aggressively distancing himself from the Republican Congress. Bush’s disagreements with the congressional GOP were sometimes vague, but in keeping with his “compassionate conservative” mantra, he gave the impression that he considered Gingrich and company too punitive and exclusionary. And he got away with this triangulation because the impeachment disaster—and resulting GOP losses in the 1998 midterms—had left the congressional Republican Party so reviled that tweaking it didn’t engender resentment from the Republican voters Bush needed to win.
The fiscal cliff deal, and the budgetary mudwrestling to follow, lays the groundwork for another Bush-like Republican presidential campaign.