— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 30, 2015
If you haven’t heard by now, Donald Trump has been saying some unpleasant things about Bill Clinton recently.
Trump, the GOP’s frontrunner / waking nightmare, said of the former president on Twitter on Monday: “If Hillary thinks she can unleash her husband, with his terrible record of women abuse, while playing the women’s card on me, she’s wrong!” On Tuesday, he brought up the Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky scandals.
The “women’s card” in question refers to Hillary Clinton saying last week that Trump has a “penchant for sexism” following his remarks that she, um, “got schlonged” in the 2008 Democratic primary. Of course — of course! — Trump is seizing the opportunity to dredge up the worst parts of Bill Clinton’s personal past.
As many outlets note, this represents an about face after years of Trump expressing public admiration for Bill Clinton. Politico outlines Trump’s past friendship with both Clintons, and the New York Times observes he’s called Bill a “terrific guy” and defended him during the Lewinsky scandal.
But that doesn’t mean it won’t be a successful line of attack for Trump, the Times continues:
“This works for Trump because it reinforces what his most ardent supporters believe to be his greatest strength,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican communications strategist. “He will say things that no one else will say but that need to be said.”
Essential if inflammatory reading on this topic: Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, no fan of Trump, who nonetheless concludes that Bill Clinton’s behavior towards women is “far worse” than Donald Trump’s:
Trump has smeared women because of their looks. Clinton has preyed on them, and in a workplace setting where he was by far the superior. That is uncomfortable for Clinton supporters but it is unavoidably true.
Ordinarily, I would argue that the sins of the husband should not be visited on the wife. What Bill Clinton did counts against him, not her, and I would include in that her decision to stick with him. What happens inside a marriage is the couple’s business, and no one else’s, even when both halves crave the presidency. But Hillary Clinton has made two moves that lead me, gulp, to agree with Trump on the “fair game” front. She is (smartly) using her husband as a campaign surrogate, and simultaneously (correctly) calling Trump sexist.
These moves open a dangerous door. It should surprise no one that Trump has barged right through it.
Slate writer Jim Newell says that, yes, bringing up Bill’s sex scandals is “fair game,” but it won’t be effective. First, people like Bill and remember his administration fondly. Second, he argues, the Republican Party’s difficulties with female voters won’t be negated by anything Bill Clinton did two decades ago:
Even if one believes the ‘war on women’ moniker is an overly sensationalistic piece of Democratic jargon, what it was originally drawn up to describe—the wave of efforts on state and federal levels by newly elected Republicans following the 2010 elections to restrict access to abortion, birth control, or funding for women’s health centers or WIC benefits—was a very real policy trend about which many women were very much aware and remain aware. Saying, “But Bill Clinton had an affair with an intern!” is not an effective counter to critiques of Republican policymaking priorities in the Tea Party era. It only reinforces how clueless the party is about the ill will such policymaking priorities created, especially among unmarried women.
I’m not so sure about that. Thus far, Trump has seemed very much adept at figuring out what outrageous rhetoric will be effective. And while it’s true that Trump’s baggage in regards to women is substantial, the cultural narrative around sexual misbehavior — especially the liberal cultural narrative — has changed tremendously since the ’90s. The Times article notes this very thing:
Stuart Stevens, a Republican operative and Mitt Romney’s chief strategist in his 2012 presidential campaign, said the way the Clinton operation disparaged women who complained about the president’s behavior in the 1990s “would be all but disqualifying in a Democratic primary” nowadays.
During Mr. Clinton’s 1992 campaign, Betsey Wright, a close aide, coined the term “bimbo eruptions” in describing rumors of extramarital affairs involving the candidate. According to White House-era documents from Diane D. Blair, a close friend of Mrs. Clinton’s who died in 2000, the first lady had referred to Ms. Lewinsky as “a narcissistic loony toon.”