What Would the GOP Do?

By Joe Conason for Salon.com

How do Republicans react when they lose at the polls? This is a question that Democrats should ponder as they nurse the painful wounds inflicted by the Massachusetts special Senate election. Based on the history of the past decade or so, the answer is simple and instructive: While the Republican Party may indulge in backbiting and recrimination and occasionally purge a leader to punish a loss, they dont back down — even when standing fast seems very costly.

Perhaps the most outstanding example in recent memory was the 1998 midterm election, held just four weeks after the House Republicans had voted almost unanimously for a highly partisan impeachment resolution against President Clinton. Contrary to the hopes of the GOP leadership, the predictions of mainstream analysts and the usual historical trends, voters then repudiated the Republicans, increasing the number of Democrats in the House by five seats. It was the first time in more than 60 years that the party of an incumbent president had won a midterm election. Yet the Republicans, unchastened by public opinion that ran strongly against impeachment (and in favor of a censure resolution over Clintons extramarital misconduct), proceeded with their crusade to oust the president who had been reelected overwhelmingly in 1996. They didnt even permit a floor vote on a censure resolution. And although they eventually ousted then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, partially as punishment for the bad midterm result, that had more to do with his personal unpopularity than any real differences over policy or politics. If anything, the congressional Republicans became more ideological and more determined to enforce their will.

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