It seemed like Bill Clinton had everything going for him. He defeated an incumbent President and became the first Democrat to win the White House since Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford. He had a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate to work with him.
One of the first major initiatives he began was health care reform. Many Americans were concerned about spiraling medical costs. Medicare did not cover prescription drugs and only paid a portion of health care costs. Over 20 million Americans had no health insurance whatsoever. Clinton assembled a task force to study the problem and assigned his wife Hillary to head the committee. She became the most politically active first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt.
Eventually Clinton presented a plan to limit costs and insure each American citizen to the Congress. Powerful interest groups representing doctors and insurance companies opposed Clinton. Many in the Congress thought the program too costly. Conservatives compared the plan to socialized medicine. Despite a "friendly" Democratic Congress, the Clintons' proposal was defeated.
When the midterm Congressional elections took place in 1994, the Republicans thought they had a chance to capture at least one house. Led by Representative Newt Gingrich, Republicans in the Congress signed a Contract with America. The contract was simply a list of ten promises each signatory pledged to pursue if the Republicans won. The stratagem worked brilliantly. The Senate votes narrowly awarded a Republican majority. More astonishing were the results in the House.
The Democrats had controlled the House of Representatives since 1954. Many Republicans had gotten used to acting like an opposition party. When the votes were counted, Republicans outscored Democrats in House seats 230-205. Gingrich was rewarded for his efforts by being named Speaker of the House.
But Bill Clinton was a political survivor. Even though voter turnout was low, Clinton accepted the Republican victory and pledged to work with the House leadership. Gingrich and his cohorts took a tough stand with the President. Unless Clinton agreed to accept deep cuts in social spending programs in 1995, they threatened to shut down the government and appropriate no funds. It was a classic standoff — Clinton versus Gingrich.
When neither party would blink, a partial shutdown of government services took place. The American public often decides the victors of such battles. Polls showed strong support for the President. Many Americans saw the Gingrich Republicans as mean-spirited zealots who wanted to end funds for school lunches. Clinton slowly saw his approval ratings rise. By the time he ran for a second term in 1996, the economy was booming and the huge budget deficit had been controlled. Voters rewarded Clinton by re-electing him over the Republican candidate Robert Dole.
In January 1998, a scandal that nearly ended Clinton's Presidency unfolded in the press. It was reported that Clinton engaged in a sexual relationship with a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky during his first term. Although Clinton originally denied the charges, overwhelming evidence was presented that Clinton and Lewinsky engaged in repeated sexual contact, even in the Oval Office.
Republicans were outraged. An independent counsel named Kenneth Starr was appointed to gather evidence against Clinton. As the summer ended, Clinton admitted that many of the reports were true and that he was ashamed of his behavior. The House Judiciary Committee drew up articles of impeachment on four counts including abuse of power and obstruction of justice. Across the nation, Americans debated whether or not Clinton's misbehavior constituted an impeachable offense.
The House decided that two articles of impeachment were in order, and in December 1998, Clinton joined Andrew Johnson as the only Presidents to be impeached. In such proceedings, the Senate has the final word and acts as a judge and jury. Two-thirds of the Senators must vote guilty to remove a President from office. Clinton survived this final vote to impeach which unfolded along party lines.
As the year 2000 approached, partisan politics were as toxic as ever. Republicans claimed that they fixed the economy and Clinton got the credit. Regardless of who gets the credit or blame, the 1990s were a decade of very steady economic growth. The crippling budget deficits of the 1980s were finally brought under control, and Americans enjoyed low inflation, low unemployment, low interest rates and a booming stock market. Even the bad blood between the two parties could not change that.