Donald Trump is out of his mind (nothing new there) if he really thinks that he can taint Hillary Clinton by recycling her husband’s infidelities. How can he, or any other Republican, hope to gain traction in 2016 with a tactic that backfired so abysmally in the last century?
Trump says that Bill has “a penchant for sexism,” that, in Bill’s career, there was “certainly a lot of abuse of women.” The thrice-married mogul isn’t the first Republican candidate to party like it’s 1999 - Rand Paul, nearly two years ago, resurrected the Lewinsky scandal when he said, “We shouldn’t want to associate with people who would take advantage of a young girl in his office” - but as political ammo goes, it’s a major misfire.
I’m not minimizing Bill’s trysts with the intern. His recklessness was a gift to his enemies, as I explicitly wrote on the morning after his impeachment. But most Americans rightfully drew a distinction between Bill’s private behavior and his performance as president - and they rebuked the Republicans harshly for their idiotic overreach. In the ‘98 midterm elections, as the House impeachment effort neared its climax, Republicans lost seats in both chambers, and impeachment overlord Newt Gingrich (who at the time was engaged in his own extramarital trysting) was compelled to quit his speakership.
By the time the conservative crusade crashed and burned, Bill Clinton’s poll ratings were higher than ever. And when he left office in January ‘01, 66 percent of Americans gave him a thumbs-up for his job performance; only 29 percent signaled thumbs-down. In the history of polling, no other president has finished his second term with better numbers. And today, 15 years after he left office, he’s polling at 60 percent positive.
It’s fair game to dredge up Bill’s past behavior, and if local Republican lawmakers want to heckle Hillary about Bill, that’s fine too. Hillary frequently touts her husband’s tenure as a ‘90s golden age, so we have to expect some conservative pushback. Which is why we’re hearing about Paula Jones and Juanita Broaddrick all over again, especially on conservative talk radio. The guilt-by-association goal is to paint Hillary as an enabler of abuse - and pull some female voters into the Republican camp.
It’s amusing so many conservatives view Broaddrick’s rape claims as automatically credible, considering both the FBI and Lewinsky prober Kenneth Starr said her claim was inconclusive. These are the same conservatives who typically insist that women alleging sexual assault are PC whiners.
Anyway, the biggest problem with resurrecting Bill’s history is that most Americans made peace with it long ago. The only people who’d be dissuaded to vote for Hillary because of her husband’s alleged behavior are people who probably wouldn’t vote for her in the first place. Even Brent Bozell, the veteran Clinton-hater who helms the conservative Media Research Center, says the tactic is a waste of time. In his words, the recycled scandal-mongers “aren’t really going to have an impact. They’re barking at the moon.”
Best of all, we got this succinct assessment of the original Republican scandal-mongers, back in January 2000: “I got a chuckle out of all the moralists in Congress....If the Clinton affair proves anything, it is that the American people don’t care about the private lives and personal of our political leaders so long as they are doing the job.”
So wrote Donald Trump.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org