Why Monica Lewinsky Shouldn’t Be a GOP Talking Point

Clinton-bashing makes the Republican Party look desperate and out of control.

 Former White House intern Monica Lewinsky (R) leaves the US District Courthouse in Washington, DC 06 August after her first day of testimony before Kenneth Starr's grand jury.
National Journal
Ron Fournier
Feb. 16, 2014, 5:23 p.m.

Bill Clin­ton uses a car-ra­cing meta­phor to ex­plain the dif­fer­ence between rash and calm de­cision-mak­ing in polit­ics. “The great drivers, when the cars get close, the turns get hairy, they calm down, and they see everything, and they act,” he says. “The ones who are fear­ful and can’t con­cen­trate and can’t calm down, run in­to the wall.”

Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers should pay at­ten­tion, be­cause on the is­sue of wheth­er Clin­ton’s sex life is rel­ev­ant 14 years after he left of­fice, they’re once again ca­reen­ing to­ward a wall.

Sen. Rand Paul dredged up Clin­ton’s af­fair with Mon­ica Lew­in­sky and his sub­sequent im­peach­ment, telling an in­ter­view­er last month that Demo­crats don’t have the mor­al high ground on wo­men’s is­sues be­cause the former pres­id­ent’s “pred­at­ory” be­ha­vi­or to­ward the White House in­tern.

“One of the work­place laws and rules that I think are good is that bosses shouldn’t prey on young in­terns in their of­fice. And I think the me­dia seems to have giv­en Pres­id­ent Clin­ton a pass on this,” the Ken­tucky Re­pub­lic­an said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Though Paul said that Hil­lary Clin­ton shouldn’t be judged for her hus­band’s be­ha­vi­or, he sug­ges­ted the Lew­in­sky af­fair would be a factor if she sought the pres­id­ency in two years. “Some­times it’s hard to sep­ar­ate one from the oth­er,” Paul said of the Clin­tons.

On the same show, 2012 GOP pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee Mitt Rom­ney said Sunday that Clin­ton had “breached his re­spons­ib­il­ity” and “em­bar­rassed” the na­tion. But he ad­ded, “I don’t think Bill Clin­ton is rel­ev­ant as Hil­lary Clin­ton if she de­cides to run for of­fice.”

What’s go­ing on here? For Paul, it’s clearly a strategy to gain a head start on the 2016 GOP pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion. Mi­chael To­masky of the Daily Beast notes that the quasi-liber­tari­an takes po­s­i­tions that are not al­ways in tune with the GOP’s con­ser­vat­ive base, such as a re­l­at­ively open mind on same-sex mar­riage. Cri­ti­ciz­ing Clin­ton (and disin­genu­ously ac­cus­ing the me­dia of giv­ing the former pres­id­ent “a pass”) is red meat to so­cial con­ser­vat­ives.

Fur­ther­more, noth­ing steels a can­did­ate for a big fight bet­ter than a big fight, and Clin­ton is an in­sanely vis­ible tar­get. “The more Paul talks about the Clin­tons, the more he sets up the men­tal pic­ture in the brains of Re­pub­lic­an primary voters of him be­ing the lo­gic­al guy to step in­to the ring with them,” To­masky wrote. “After all, they’ll think, he’s sure not afraid of them!”

I’ll add one more reas­on. Fo­cus­ing voters on the past may be a subtle way to ar­gue that Hil­lary Clin­ton is not about the fu­ture.

Here’s the prob­lem: While Clin­ton bash­ing may be a good pre-primary tac­tic, it’s a lousy polit­ics for the Re­pub­lic­an Party in gen­er­al. We know that be­cause Clin­ton re­gistered the highest ap­prov­al rat­ings of his pres­id­ency dur­ing the peri­od between the Janu­ary 1998 ex­pos­ure of his af­fair and Feb­ru­ary 1999, when the Sen­ate voted to ac­quit him.

In Ju­ly 2012, Clin­ton’s ap­prov­al rat­ing re­gistered at 66 per­cent, high­er than any time since he left of­fice. Two-thirds of wo­men gave him high marks, as did 44 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans.

Elec­tions are about the fu­ture. The GOP is harp­ing on the past. Rom­ney seem to ac­know­ledge the prob­lem when he said Sunday, “I don’t think Bill Clin­ton is as rel­ev­ant as Hil­lary Clin­ton if she de­cides to run for pres­id­ent.” He ad­ded, “She has her own re­cord and her own vis­ion.”

What ex­actly is the GOP vis­ion bey­ond at­tack­ing Pres­id­ent Obama and two Clin­tons? That’s what brought to mind the Clin­ton car-ra­cing meta­phor, which I’ve heard him de­ploy over the years in dif­fer­ent con­texts. Lack­ing a fresh, for­ward-look­ing agenda, Re­pub­lic­ans should worry that at­tacks on Bill Clin­ton’s char­ac­ter could back­fire again, mak­ing them ap­pear to be act­ing out of fear, un­able to con­cen­trate or calm down.

The Clin­ton quote at the top of this column came from an Oc­to­ber 2009 cam­paign speech for an em­battled Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate, New Jer­sey Gov. Jon Corz­ine, when the ex-pres­id­ent was beg­ging voters to care­fully con­sider their op­tions be­fore turn­ing against the in­cum­bent.

He used a second meta­phor in the speech: “The great quar­ter­backs,” Clin­ton said, “are the ones that keep look­ing at the field, even when these 300-pound be­hemoths are about to crush them, right. They are, they’re calm, and they com­plete the pass. That’s what vot­ing is for people in trouble this year. You can­not let people let their fears, their frus­tra­tions, their dis­cour­age­ment, keep them from the polls.”

New Jer­sey didn’t listen. A few days later, Corz­ine was de­feated by Re­pub­lic­an Chris Christie, who went on to win re-elec­tion in a 2013 cam­paign rife with poor de­cision-mak­ing. Christie’s pres­id­en­tial dreams are now as stalled as a race car on the George Wash­ing­ton Bridge. When will these guys learn?

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