It’s not like Republicans didn’t telegraph the punch. Over the summer, a variety of GOP presidential campaigns – Lindsey Graham’s, Scott Walker’s, and Rand Paul’s among them – went out of their way to take cheap shots at Bill Clinton’s personal controversies from the 1990s.
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that, as far as he’s concerned, the decades-old Lewinsky scandal is one of many 2016 issues he considers “on the table.”
And now Donald Trump is getting in on the fun.
“You look at whether it’s Monica Lewinsky or Paula Jones or many of them,” Trump said on NBC’s TODAY. “That certainly will be fair game. Certainly if they play the woman’s card with respect to me, that will be fair game.”In recent days, the GOP front-runner has been highlighting the former president’s affair with intern Monica Lewinsky, saying that Bill Clinton has a pattern of “abuse of women.”
Nearly eight years ago, Trump said the sex scandals surrounding the former president were “totally unimportant.” Evidently, he’s changed his mind.
Note, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina have also joined the parade, and pundits such as the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus are offering their support for the line of attack.
The remaining questions are pretty straightforward: why do Republicans think this is a smart strategy and will it have the intended effect?
On the former, GOP candidates and their campaigns are well aware of the fact that Bill Clinton is a popular national figure whose presidency is held in high regard by much of the American mainstream. When Republicans raise the prospect of a “third Clinton term,” quite a few voters are likely to think, “Sounds good to me.”
So, as the former president gets ready to hit the campaign trail, Republicans are left to clumsily go after the former president, one of the most well liked people in the country, in the hopes of knocking him down a peg or two. What do they have in the way of rhetorical ammunition? They have his extra-marital affairs … and that’s about it.
As for the efficacy of the offensive, I’m highly skeptical any voter, anywhere is likely to be impressed.
The phrase of the week is apparently “fair game” – as in, “If Bill Clinton is re-entering the political arena, his affairs are fair game for attack.” I’m not altogether exactly sure what that means in practical terms. If the point is that Clinton’s detractors are able to talk about his personal controversies decades later, then sure, have at it. But if the point is to undermine Clinton’s support, and/or immunize GOP candidates against criticisms of their right-wing platform on women’s rights and women’s interests, Republicans and their allies are likely to be very disappointed.
I’m not suggesting Bill Clinton’s sex scandals should be considered off-limits; I am suggesting this is a ridiculous gambit doomed to fail. Let’s see a show of hands: how many folks believe Bill Clinton is thinking, “If they’re going after me, maybe I should keep a low profile for the next 11 months”? Or how about the number of voters who’ll say, “I was planning to vote for Hillary Clinton, but now that I’ve been reminded about her husband’s personal troubles from the 1990s, never mind”?
As we discussed several months ago, the more Republicans went after Bill Clinton over adultery during his presidency, the more popular he became. 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 Clinton’s tenure, and re-litigate his personal misdeeds. As best as I can tell, the public just doesn’t care.
What’s more, in case this somehow gets lost in the shuffle, it’s probably also worth mentioning the fact that Bill Clinton isn’t a candidate for anything. (If he were, he’d probably win.) It’s Hillary Clinton who’s likely to be on the 2016 ballot, and even this field of GOP candidates isn’t prepared to start blaming her for her husband’s infidelity.
So what’s the end game? Republicans are still going to face criticism for embracing a right-wing agenda on women’s issues; Bill Clinton is still going to be a popular surrogate; the American mainstream is still going to shrug its shoulders over the Lewinsky affair.
Carly Fiorina told Fox this week, “[Y]ou’re not going to beat Hillary Clinton by attacking Bill Clinton.” That’s true, which is probably why her rivals and her party should think of something else to talk about.