If anyone would know how to handle the job while being humiliated by one’s opponents with impeachment, he would.
The context here is Clinton calling into CNN to push gun control after this morning’s school shooting in Santa Clarita. In particular, Tapper wants to know what he thinks of Bill Barr saying yesterday that some sort of gun-control compromise might have been feasible before impeachment poisoned the political well with partisanship that’s even more toxic than the country is used to. Clinton’s reply: That’s no excuse.
“Well, my answer is, look at how much we got done in 1998 to 1999. And even in ’97. We had very productive actions in all three years,” Clinton said, pointing to a pair of government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996 after Republicans made gains in the midterms as “the only really tough year.”…
But “once the public made a judgment on what they thought should be done” about impeachment, he added, “I just kept working with them. That’s just an excuse.”…
“My message was — would be — look, you got hired to do a job. You don’t get to — every day’s an opportunity to make something good happen,” Clinton replied. “And I would say ‘I’ve got lawyers and staff people handling this impeachment inquiry and they should just have at it. Meanwhile, I’m going to work for the American people.’ That’s what I would do.”
It feels like a cop-out to answer that glibly with “different era,” but … different era. The second half of Clinton’s presidency was distinguished by the two parties’ willingness to work with each other on big-ticket legislation despite mutual partisan loathing. That was enabled by Clinton’s centrist tendencies and the GOP’s political self-interest in competing for centrist voters, fresh off reclaiming the House majority for the first time in 40 years. The fact that Clinton was term-limited and couldn’t directly capitalize on new legislation didn’t hurt either.
Twenty years later, neither side has an incentive to compromise. Democrats watched Republicans clean up electorally during the Obama era by following Mitch McConnell’s strategy of roadblocking O’s agenda. In theory, centrist voters might have punished the GOP for obstructing the new president; in practice, Republicans won landslides in the 2010 and 2014 midterms and total control of government in 2016. The lesson for Democrats was to follow McConnell’s lead by obstructing the new president from the other party as much as they were able to do so in 2017-18. It paid off with a new House majority. Both parties have now internalized the belief that not only is there no significant electoral penalty for refusing to compromise, it may actually benefit them to refuse.
Meanwhile, because Trump (unlike Clinton) will be on the ballot again after he’s impeached, Democrats are wary of handing him any sort of accomplishment he might use to pad his resume on the trail next fall. Why do a deal with him on gun control or infrastructure or anything else when he’ll tout that as proof that he’s getting things done for Americans and will continue to do so if he gets another term? They’re better off starving him of victories and leaving him to base his pitch for a second term on his one major legislative achievement to date, tax cuts. As for Trump, he’s always seemed completely convinced that he has the numbers on the right to defeat any Democrat and that it’s a simple matter of turning those voters out. He doesn’t need to pander to the center by compromising on anything; in fact, compromising — especially on a hot-button cultural item like guns — is apt to hurt his electoral chances by alienating his fans. His instinct in any political situation is to double and triple down on his base, and to the extent that he ever veers slightly from that strategy (as he has periodically by at least entertaining the idea of new gun control), a few phone calls from key right-wing figures like Wayne LaPierre or a few nasty tweets from the likes of Ann Coulter reliably bring him back into line.
I mean, imagine Trump amid the total war of an impeachment trial doing something on policy that might jeopardize the intensity of the support he enjoys among righties. He needs the GOP base behind him now more than ever in case Senate Republicans start to get any funny ideas about removal. A major legislative deal, particularly on something like guns, might so weaken his populist support that it’ll give the congressional Republicans who secretly loathe him the cover they need to vote to oust him.
You can compromise through an impeachment ordeal if you have two parties that are aiming for the same voters, more or less, and whose disputes are fundamentally about policy. I don’t think we have either anymore. Elections in the Trump era are about whether your coalition is bigger than their coalition. And the big disputes have more to do with culture war and the demographic change that’s contributing to it than simple policy disagreements. Amid all the suspicion and loathing, what’s to talk about? Next year’s election will be a lesser-of-two-evils choice once again. “Trump is a corrupt autocratic cancer on America” on the one hand versus “The socialist Democrats want to unmake the America we know and love” on the other. There’s no middle ground.