American politics went a bit crazy in the late 1990s. Tonight, Donald Trump decided to drag it back there.
It seems like a long time ago that President Bill Clinton’s sex life became Washington’s biggest story since Watergate. The nation was at peace, the economy was humming, and the deficit was vanishing when Republicans launched a ferocious campaign to impeach him over his handling of a dalliance with an intern. The entire saga was bizarre beyond belief, informing the world about cigars, thongs, and other incredibly sordid details of the president’s behavior behind closed doors.
But when Hillary Clinton ran for office in 2000, her husband’s extramarital activities, while still a staple of late-night comedy, did not become an issue in her race. This was partly because they were her husband’s activities; obviously, she wasn’t in the room when they happened. But it was partly because impeaching Bill Clinton had been so politically damaging for congressional Republicans. His approval ratings actually improved, and Americans felt even more sympathetic to his wronged wife. The consensus in the political world was that attacking her over her husband’s infidelities would have made her even more sympathetic.
Then again, if the consensus in the political world was always right, Donald Trump wouldn’t be the Republican presidential nominee. After an embarrassing tape surfaced of him boasting about kissing and grabbing women without their consent, he has tried to change the subject to his opponent’s husband, making an astonishing appearance before last night’s debate with several women who said they were mistreated long ago by Bill Clinton. He then mentioned the former president 12 times during the debate, with 10 of the mentions related to sex.
“You can say it any way you want to say it, but Bill Clinton was abusive to women,” Trump said.
Basically, Trump is trying to relitigate the Clinton sex wars, contending that Bill is not just a horndog but a rapist, and that Hillary is not a victim but an enabler. His argument, more or less, is that Bill Clinton has treated women even worse than he has, and that therefore Bill Clinton’s wife is less fit for the presidency than he is. It’s an unconventional closing argument for the last month of a campaign, especially since Trump has argued in the past that Bill’s big mistake was hitting on unattractive women, but Trump is nothing if not unconventional. He’s been foreshadowing these Bill attacks for months, even suggesting after the last debate that he deserved some kind of brownie points for holding back. It’s almost as if he’s calling his opponent a “cuck,” the derisive term (short for the cuckolded “cuckservatives") his supporters use to mock the wimpiness of traditional Republicans who complain about his rhetoric.
But it’s hard to see how this kind of mudslinging will appeal to anyone who didn’t already hate the Clinton family. If denouncing a woman over her husband’s adultery is an effective way to appeal to female voters, focus groups have somehow failed to detect that. And if Trump wants to drag Clinton into the briar patch of the nineties, well, after fifteen years of war, as well as an economic collapse followed by a slow recovery, he might remind Americans that the nineties weren’t so bad. They probably don’t want a reprise of grunge and Tamagotchi, but peace and prosperity was nice. They almost certainly don’t want to relive the Javert-like investigation by special prosecutor Ken Starr, who, speaking of beyond belief, recently lost his job as Baylor’s president for turning a blind eye to sexual misconduct.
The real danger for Trump, and for down-ballot Republicans who are tied to his fortunes whether they like it or not, is that to many Americans, the nineties were a time when power-mad, sex-obsessed Republicans impeached a popular president. Bill Clinton’s sex life has become less of a tabloid saga and more of a symbol of a GOP consumed with hatred of its opponents, a symbol that seems timely when Trump rallies are devolving into chants of “Lock Her Up!” One reason that Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in 2008 was that many Democrats were tired of the Clinton battles; they hoped -- futilely, as it turned out -- that politics might get less partisan and vicious with a fresh face in the White House. But in the nineties, most Americans identified more with the Clintons, whatever their flaws, than the Republicans obsessed with bringing down the Clintons, and that’s probably still true today.
Perhaps a Republican nominee with a less egregious record of sexism would be able to make a case that Bill Clinton’s relationships with women other than his wife have renewed relevance for the candidacy of his wife. But Donald Trump is not the guy to make a feminist case against Hillary Clinton. He’s really making a Clinton-hater case against the Clinton family, just as he did months ago when he suggested that Vince Foster may not have committed suicide. On conservative talk radio, Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct has become, like “Whitewater” or “Travelgate” or now “Benghazi,” shorthand for the seedy corruption of Bill and Hillary Clinton. But for most Americans, it won’t seem like the defining issue of 2016. American attitudes towards sex have surely changed since the nineties—and for that matter since the seventies, when Bill Clinton met Juanita Broaddrick and Donald Trump was risking so many diseases he compared dating to service in Vietnam—but there doesn’t seem to be any noticeable uptick in the desire to blame women for getting cheated on.