Is Bill Clinton’s sexual history fair game in the 2016 campaign? Donald Trump certainly thinks so.
“Hillary is an enabler,” he said in one interview. “She’s married to an abuser!” he said in another. “If she’s going to play the woman card, it’s all fair game,” he added.
The sad thing is, he’s right.
Hillary Clinton does play the gender card, relentlessly. She has frequently reminded voters that she would be the first female president and has cast herself as a champion of women’s causes.
In September, at a college campus in Iowa, she pledged to fight sexual assault, saying: “I want to send a message to all of the survivors. Don’t let anyone silence your voice. You have the right to be heard, the right to be believed, and we are with you as you go forward.”
Then she sent her husband, former President Bill Clinton, onto the campaign trail. Although he’s now beloved by millions, everyone knows he’s a liability. He was impeached in 1998 after an illicit affair with a 22-year-old White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. He was sued for sexual harassment by a former Arkansas state employee, Paula Jones (he settled with no acknowledgment of guilt). And he was accused of rape by a former campaign volunteer, Juanita Broaddrick; the charge was never adjudicated because Broaddrick waited 21 years before making it.
Last month, a young woman at a town meeting in New Hampshire confronted Hillary Clinton about those cases. If survivors have the right to be believed, she asked, what about Bill Clinton’s accusers?
The candidate looked stunned for a moment, then answered: “I would say that everybody should be believed at first – until they are disbelieved based on evidence.”
Is there a wide enough gap between Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric and Bill Clinton’s record to make this a legitimate issue in the campaign? Sure.
This isn’t about Bill Clinton’s philandering; voters decided what they thought about that long ago. And it would be grotesque to blame his wife for sins he committed against her.
But it’s reasonable to ask whether Bill Clinton, a public figure acting as a surrogate for his wife, lived up to her 2016 standards for treating potential survivors of sexual abuse.
The answer is: He didn’t. Twenty years ago, Bill Clinton and his associates did their best to discredit his accusers. The pithiest, as usual, was James Carville, who said of Paula Jones: “If you drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find.”
It’s reasonable, as well, to ask what role Hillary Clinton played in those cases. But on that count, the evidence is thin.
She told a friend, Diane Blair, that Lewinsky was a “loony tune” – but that was a private comment that surfaced years later, not a public slam. And at the time, Bill Clinton had falsely assured her that Lewinsky was lying and that there had been no sexual relationship.
As far as is known, Hillary Clinton didn’t throw herself in the way of her husband’s attack dogs. She didn’t speak out in defense of his accusers. She didn’t resign as first lady. She remained doggedly loyal to her faithless husband – often through gritted teeth.
Does that make her an “enabler?” Suggesting, in effect, that Hillary Clinton had a duty to desert her husband is a pretty tough standard to demand of any spouse.
Now, 20 years later, Clinton is pulling out the usual playbook: Insist that there’s nothing here to see. Accuse your critics of partisanship (perfectly true, in this case). Argue that the campaign should focus on current problems, not old ones (also perfectly true). And warn your opponents that they’ve chosen the wrong strategy.
“If (Trump) wants to engage in personal attacks from the past, that’s his prerogative,” she said Sunday. “It’s been fair game going back to the Republicans for some years. They can do it again if they want to. … I think it’s a dead end, (a) blind alley for them.”
But Trump, whose record as a champion of women exists mostly in his imagination, shows no sign of relenting.
“I haven’t even started in on her yet,” he bragged Jan. 11.
And even if a more gentlemanly Republican wins the GOP nomination, conservative activists are certain to keep the questions alive.
Because Hillary Clinton is a candidate, every part of her record qualifies as fair game. And if she continues to deploy her husband as a spokesman, his record is fair game, too. Sooner or later, Clinton needs to confront the past, talk about it – and then try to move on.
Doyle McManus is a Los Angeles Times columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org