Two facts: Former President Bill Clinton has had dalliances with numerous women who were not Hillary Clinton over the course of their marriage, and Hillary Clinton is now running for president. Should the former preclude the latter’s chances? I don’t necessarily understand how that would work. But my lack of enlightenment shouldn’t stop Clinton’s rival candidates, either now or in the general election, from giving it a shot.
It is an odd thing, this debate about whether Bill Clinton’s record of sexual profligacy is appropriate to use as a political attack. The agreed-upon term of record in this meta-debate is “fair game.” As in: Is it fair game to point out that Bill Clinton had multiple extramarital affairs, one of which went down with a young intern during the 42nd president’s time in office? Can a candidate level this attack without fear of retribution, or will the chief arbiter of morality in political attacks (George Will? Howard Kurtz?) have to issue a fine?
In early 2014, Sen. Rand Paul went through a phase in which he ran around calling former President Clinton a “sexual predator” who was responsible for the real “war on women.” Paul’s wife, Kelley, had said the same thing. We’ll get to the lameness of this attack in a minute. But first let’s consider how this trial balloon was received.
After making the comments, Paul appeared on Meet the Press, which at the time was still the den of human haircut David Gregory. Gregory didn’t simply ask Paul to expand on what he and his wife meant by calling Clinton’s sexual behavior “predatory” or why he believes that Bill Clinton cheating on his wife should negatively affect his wife’s political career. He asked, instead, “Are these issues something that you really think will be fair game and an appropriate part of a campaign, should she be the nominee?” And so came other takes debating the ethics of whether candidates have permission to discuss Clinton’s affairs.
The fair-game question has been resurrected now that Donald Trump has begun talking about Clinton’s affairs. (It is a grand tradition for public figures who have their own histories of sexual misconduct—Newt Gingrich, Bob Livingston, Dennis Hastert, Henry Hyde, and now Donald Trump—to serve as mascots for the persecution of Bill Clinton’s penis.) In typical Trumpspeak, the Republican front-runner has blasted Bill Clinton’s “terrible record of women abuse.”
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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 28, 2015
Since these are words that came out of Trump’s mouth, they’ve garnered more than their fair share of media attention. Trump has defended the attack as—you guessed it—“fair game.” Carly Fiorina, who serves as female validator of her male rivals’ attacks against Hillary Clinton, has also validated the appropriateness of the line using the words fair and game, in that order.
They are both correct. It is perfectly acceptable to remind people that Bill Clinton, former president and husband of the Democratic presidential front-runner, is a sleaze. Here’s a simple heuristic, in general, for determining whether a political attack is fair game: Does it attack a candidate’s not-newsworthy children? If not, then it’s probably fair game to try it out.
But just because something is fair game doesn’t mean it will be effective or even make sense. Let’s try to divine the political utility of wielding Bill Clinton’s personal shortcomings against Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency.
One would be to muddy up the image of the fondly remembered former president, Hillary Clinton’s most effective proxy who’s now gearing up to join the campaign trail. The whole reason that Trump is bringing up Bill Clinton’s “women abuse” is because of reports that he’s going to start stumping for his wife. If you can turn Bill Clinton into a liability, you’ve greatly increased your chances of defeating Hillary Clinton. Just ask Barack Obama, whose campaign was able to convince much of the electorate that Bill Clinton was a thoroughgoing racist during the 2008 presidential primary. But we already have evidence that the public, on net, views Bill Clinton and his legacy favorably in spite of the Lewinsky scandal. Consider the 1998 elections or the 60-plus percent approval ratings Clinton enjoyed upon leaving office. As Fiorina herself said, after acknowledging that the criticism is fair to use in this particular game, “But you’re not going to beat Hillary Clinton by attacking Bill Clinton.”
Another possibility is to use Bill Clinton’s record as a counterattack against Hillary Clinton or the Democratic Party’s description of Republicans’ “war on women.” This is why Paul was calling Clinton “predatory” last year. “The Democrats, one of their big issues is they have concocted and said Republicans are committing a war on women,” Paul told David Gregory. “One of the workplace laws and rules that I think are good is that bosses shouldn’t prey on young interns in their office.” Trump, too, is holding up Clinton’s mistresses as amulets against criticism of his own piggish behavior. “You look at whether it’s Monica Lewinsky or Paula Jones or many of them, and that certainly will be fair game,” Trump said. “Certainly if they play the woman’s card with respect to me, that will be fair game.”
The problem here is that this is stupid. 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.
Beyond these two ineffectual uses, all that’s left are the more hand-waving, cerebral ones, such as “Hillary Clinton is running for president, but her husband was president, and he had sex with another lady, and the Clintons are evil sex people so … vote Trump?” (This is what they all are, really.) Trump or whoever else wants to bring up Bill Clinton’s affairs as a means of tarnishing Hillary Clinton’s chances should go nuts with that. Really, it’s totally fine! It’s weird that people might think it wouldn’t be fine. But it doesn’t mean anyone will care.