Time to Party Like It's 1998

Dennis Van Tine/Sipa via AP Images

Hillary Clinton during a town hall meeting at Keene High School in Keene, New Hampshire, on Sunday, January 3, 2016.

Get ready, America: We're about to take a long and unpleasant journey back down Bill Clinton's pants.

If the idea sounds ridiculous to you, it's probably for one of two reasons. Either you're too young to remember what happened in 1998, the year-long frenzy that culminated in Clinton's impeachment, or you've underestimated the desire in conservative circles to dive right back into that miserable pool of muck.

You could be forgiven for the latter. After all, it was a political debacle for Republicans the first time around. When it was revealed that Clinton had had an affair with a young White House staffer, they thought, "We've finally got him now!" But they didn't—they failed to convict him, they lost the 1998 off-year elections (when the pattern of history would suggest a big year for the opposition party), the public became more disgusted with the Republicans' combination of puritanism and prurience than with Clinton himself (don't forget the vulgarity of the Starr Report, where nearly every sexual contact between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky was chronicled in obsessive, pornographic detail), and the target of their wrath left office with approval ratings in the 60s. Why would they want to revisit all that? 

The answer is that this isn't the product of some kind of rational strategic judgment. To a degree, Republicans are casting about for anything that might hurt Hillary. But at its heart this is a product of their emotions. For 18 years they've been holding on to their disappointment that Clinton slipped away from them, their disgust at him, their anger over the whole episode, their outright hatred of everything that he represented. So when Donald Trump said that Hillary Clinton can't call him sexist because of what her husband has done, it was as though a bandage had been ripped off. All the blood and pus of their loathing for Bill, particularly around the issue of who  he slept with, is going to begin pouring out all over again. Just you wait.

One small preview: At an event yesterday in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton was heckled by a woman in the crowd about women who have accused Bill Clinton of abusing them. It turned out the the heckler wasn't just some random nut but a New Hampshire state representative, who told a reporter afterward that she was a Democrat until Bill Clinton's behavior turned her into a Republican.

We're going to see a lot more of this, a multi-pronged effort to give this issue the maximum exposure, so every possible moment of news coverage of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign will be taken up with discussion of Bill's sins. Here's how it works: B-team Republicans like this state rep do the dirty work, with public confrontations and a blizzard of accusations ranging from the challenging to the insane. The conservative media swing into action, pounding on the subject day after day to get their audiences as outraged and excited as possible. Elite Republicans do their part, with rhetoric that is dialed back just a notch or two, using every public appearance they can to say that very serious questions have been raised and we need a full and complete airing of it all. And the media lap it up, passing on every rumor and allegation on the justification that it's all "out there" so we just have to fill endless hours of airtime with it.

And make no mistake: There is almost nothing the news media, particularly cable news but other media as well, would love more than to spend months talking about sexual scandals. They do it all with a moralizing shake of the head and insincere words testifying to their discomfort with such an uncomfortable subject, but let them talk about sex and the president (even a former one), and they're in heaven. As you watch the endless cable news hours and newspaper column inches devoted to this topic, you might remind yourself how laughable the right's charges of endemic liberal media bias are.

For the record, I'm not defending anything Bill Clinton did or didn't do. As Michelle Goldberg explains, Republicans have changed their tune about this issue; they used to say that Bill was a deplorable libertine whose animal urges made him unfit to be president; now they're saying that he's a serial "abuser" of women in various ways, ranging from unwanted advances to at least one rape allegation. The argument then proceeds like this: Bill is a monster, Hillary helped him get away with it, and therefore she's not the feminist she pretends to be.   

I don't know enough about the rape allegation to say if there's anything to it, but we know that Bill Clinton had lots of affairs, including the particularly reprehensible one with Monica Lewinsky, a woman 27 years his junior who worked for him. But Bill Clinton is not actually running for anything. One of the talking points that's getting repeated a lot is, "How can she say she'll stand up for women if she defends him?" Which is idiotic, no matter what you think of Bill.

I've yet to hear a Republican explain exactly why whatever Bill Clinton did means that his wife would be a bad president, particularly on issues of concern to women. She has a whole passel of issue positions and policy plans that are designed to be beneficial to women, on subjects like gender discrimination, family leave, and reproductive rights. I suppose they want people to believe that all those things are a lie, and upon taking the oath of office Clinton will shout, "Ha, I've fooled you all! I don't believe any of that pro-woman stuff! Now that I have the power, I'm going to govern like ... a Republican!"

So the GOP—the party that wants to keep women from being able to sue for discrimination on the job, the party that wants to keep insurance companies from having to provide coverage for birth control, the party that wants to make abortion illegal, the party whose favorite media figure, Rush Limbaugh, positively luxuriates in his hateful misogyny, the party of "legitimate rape" and defunding Planned Parenthood—this party is now going to pretend to be the ones who care so deeply about women that they provide the only alternative to a woman-hater like Hillary Clinton.

You don't have to think highly of Bill Clinton to find that revolting.

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