There were plenty of interesting moments in last night’s forum in New Hampshire for the Republican presidential candidates, but by some accounts, this was the moment that sparked some chatter in the audience.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) missed the Planned Parenthood vote to attend the forum, where he turned heads with an attack on Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s honesty that referenced her husband’s affair with an intern, Monica Lewinsky, while in office.“I’m fluent in Clinton speak,” Graham said. “When Bill says ‘I didn’t have sex with that woman,’ he did….”
Graham, you’ll recall, was in the U.S. House during the Lewinsky scandal, and served as an “impeachment manager” when the Senate weighed whether to remove then-President Clinton from office.
What does the ’90s-era controversy have to do with the 2016 presidential race? Not a whole lot, but Lindsey Graham’s rhetoric wasn’t completely out of the blue, either. Stepping back, this seems to be an area of preoccupation for some of the Republican Party, despite the fact that the initial affair happened 20 years ago, and despite the fact that Bill Clinton won’t be on the ballot.
Just three weeks ago, when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) launched his presidential campaign, he was introduced by television personality Rachel Campos-Duffy, who told attendees, “Scott has been married to Tonette for 24 years; 24 is Bill Clinton’s favorite age.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), meanwhile, has made so many references to the Lewinsky story that it became a little creepy.
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, meanwhile, told msnbc’s Andrea Mitchell last year that, as far as he’s concerned, the decades-old sex scandal is one of many issues that are “on the table.”
Is this really going to continue intermittently for the next 15 months?
Part of this may very well be a GOP strategy to make Bill Clinton less popular. The former president remains a very popular national figure, so much so that even some Republicans have been caught up in recent years in what Robert Schlesinger calls “Clinton Nostalgia Syndrome.”
It’s entirely possible that Republicans hope to bring Bill Clinton down a peg so that Hillary Clinton can’t fully exploit the familial advantage.
But if this is the strategy, it’s unlikely to work. Remember, Bill Clinton’s approval rating actually climbed as the Republicans’ impeachment crusade dragged on. The day the House GOP actually impeached him – Dec. 19, 1998 – Gallup put Clinton’s approval rating at a stunning 73%.
In the years since, Americans have had plenty of time to consider the Clinton presidency, and by most measures, he remains well liked and respected. As we’ve discussed before, the public is well aware of the sex scandal – people just don’t care. And unless the right has an idea as to how any of this is relevant to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, it’s not at all clear what voters are supposed to think of the entire line of criticism.
So, whether Republicans are coordinating their message on Lewinsky rhetoric or this is just an unfortunate coincidence, either way, the party’s tactic is almost certainly a mistake.