Even by his standards, Donald Trump's reaction to the release of an audio tape of him joking about sexually assaulting women was astonishing:
The response is worse somehow pic.twitter.com/BkTU8YrVql— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) October 7, 2016
He seamlessly pivoted from a devastating revelation about his own misogyny to pointing out that Bill Clinton is the Real Sexist.
This is part of a pattern. In the first presidential debate, he congratulated himself for not bringing up Bill's infidelities: "I was going to say something extremely rough to Hillary, to her family, and I said to myself, I can't do it. It's inappropriate. It's not nice." In case anyone wasn't clear about what he was talking about, after the debate he told reporters, "I’m very happy that I was able to hold back on the indiscretions with respect to Bill Clinton."
In case that was too subtle, he had his surrogates bring the matter up repeatedly. Arkansas Attorney General and Trump surrogate Leslie Rutledge told NBC News's Craig Melvin in response to questioning about Trump's treatment of Miss Universe Alicia Machado, "If we want to dig back through the '90s on comments made about women, we can certainly look to Secretary Clinton referring to Monica Lewinsky as a neurotic loony-toon." Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) went even further, making shocking new allegations about Hillary Clinton's infidelities with the same women as her husband: "Look at what she has done: Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, my goodness."
What's the motivation for Trump and his team to dredge the Clinton affairs up? The '90s scandals are pretty old news. There are 18-year-olds voting in this election who weren't alive when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke in January 1998, and millions more voters in their 20s and 30s who weren’t really old enough to remember.
And more importantly (Blackburn’s apparent confusion aside), these are allegations about Bill Clinton. If anything, Hillary Clinton, as the cheated-on party in the Flowers and Lewinsky cases, is a victim. Why should any of this reflect poorly on her campaign?
The best explanation we have is twofold. First, the Trump campaign thinks public perceptions around the scandals like those surrounding Bill Clinton have changed in a way that might make that history extremely damaging to the Clintons’ reputation with millennials — if those millennials are briefed on what happened. Thus, bringing it up whenever possible. Second, they view making the conversation about Bill as an effective way to deflect the many, many allegations of sexism against Trump that this campaign has brought to light.
Would young people like Bill Clinton, if they really knew him?
Steve Bannon, the CEO of Trump's campaign and former head of Breitbart News, has believed there’s potential in reviving the Bill Clinton scandals for some time now. In January 2015, way before Trump even announced his run for president, Bloomberg’s Joshua Green talked to Bannon about his and Breitbart’s efforts to gather dirt on the Clintons. Bannon was insistent that Bill Clinton’s marital indiscretions were promising ground:
His conviction stems from the group of young, female Breitbart News reporters whom he’s dubbed the Valkyries. When I expressed skepticism about the value of reintroducing old scandals, Bannon countered that the Valkyries—a sort of in-house focus group of millennial voter sentiment—were unfamiliar with Clinton contretemps that most older people consider settled. "There’s a whole generation of people who love the news but were 7 or 8 years old when this happened and have no earthly idea about the Clinton sex stuff," he says.
There’s an obvious counterargument to this claim: When people were aware of Bill Clinton’s indiscretions in the 1990s, it didn’t make him unpopular. Indeed, in the first weeks after the Drudge Report broke the Lewinsky story on January 17, 1998, Clinton’s approval rating spiked upward, from about 60 percent to 69:
After the House impeached him in December, his popularity spiked again, only falling after the whole saga ended with a Senate acquittal in February. It’s hard to conclude anything besides that the scandal was good for Clinton’s reputation with the public at the time, and completely backfired for congressional Republicans, who faced losses in the 1998 midterms for good measure.
And that’s nothing compared with what the scandal did for Hillary. If Bill’s approval ratings edged upward as a result of the Lewinsky affair, Hillary’s positively soared:
So why in the world would a Republican-aligned operative want to replicate that experience?
The answer lies in Bannon’s allusion to his younger female employees. Yes, these scandals didn’t hurt Clinton the first time around — but the constant barrage of scandals created a numbing effect that weakened the power of each individual charge. And, more pertinently, our norms around sexual misconduct have changed dramatically since the 1990s.
The main line of attack against Clinton in the Lewinsky case from Republicans was a combination of a) the president was unfaithful to his wife, indicating moral bankruptcy on his part, and b) he lied about it under oath, undermining the rule of law. It definitely wasn’t that he was abusing the power of his office by having an affair with a subordinate. That would have been a hard argument for congressional Republicans to make, given that House Speaker Newt Gingrich was having an affair with a staffer (now his third wife) during the whole process.
But in retrospect, this is clearly the most important and troubling aspect of the story. Adultery is wrong, but most Americans view it as a private failing that doesn’t necessarily reflect a politician’s ability to do their job. Perjury is also wrong, but the focus on that element reeked of an effort to find a charge, any charge, with which to impeach Clinton.
A president sleeping with a White House intern, by contrast, is clear cut-and-dried sexual harassment. It’s absolutely unacceptable behavior toward a subordinate. In a private company, it’s a fireable offense. It might have been accepted as normal in the '90s, but sexual harassment has slowly come to be recognized as a serious offense in workplaces, and exploiting the power of a senior office to get a lower-ranked employee to consent to sex is a particularly egregious manifestation of it.
More to the point, we now have 20 years of hindsight, and it’s clear that the real victim of the imbroglio was Lewinsky herself, who has been denied the ability to live a normal life with relative anonymity and has become an activist against online abuse after enduring loads of it herself.
The even clearer examples of this are cases where Clinton was accused not of consensual sex but of sexual assault. Lewinsky and Clinton’s previous paramour Gennifer Flowers tend to get placed in the same bucket as Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones, and Kathleen Willey, but all three of the latter women accused him of sexual assault. Broaddrick claims that Clinton raped her; Jones alleged that he exposed himself to her; Willey accused him of grabbing her breasts and forcing her to touch his genitals.
You can judge those claims credible or not (having reviewed the cases, I think the Broaddrick allegation is much more credible than the other two), but they’re not "sex scandals." They’re accusations of sexual violence. And recent public conversations about Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, and other prominent men accused of sexual assault suggest that the American public is much more willing now to treat those kinds of accusations seriously.
There’s an issue with Bannon’s strategy, however. It depends not merely on getting young voters outraged about Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct. To work, this strategy has to convince them that Hillary Clinton is somehow complicit in, or responsible for, his behavior. And that is a much tougher sell, both because the evidence is far thinner (the closest thing to a smoking gun is Hillary calling Lewinsky a "narcissistic looney-toon" … in a private conversation with a friend) and because of the inherent perversity of blaming a wife for her husband’s crimes.
It’s a move that denies Clinton her identity as a distinct person from her spouse, which in turn undermines any of the feminist appeal this attack line might have had to voters outraged by Clinton’s treatment of Lewinsky, Broaddrick, etc.
Sure enough, when Rachel Kramer Bussel surveyed female millennial voters for Fortune on their views on the scandals, she found that most people she talked to thought it was gross to equate Clinton's behavior with that of her husband, with one commenting, "I consider Hillary Clinton as a politician independent of her husband, Bill Clinton. Just as I would never associate Bernie Sanders as a politician with his wife, Jane Sanders, I would never associate a politician as a politician with their spouse."
What’s provoking Trump and co. to bring up the '90s again
It’s informative to look at the actual point in the debate where Trump brought-up-by-pretending-to-not-bring-up the Clinton sex scandals. It was directly in response to Hillary Clinton bringing up his treatment of Miss Universe Alicia Machado, and other instances of sexism:
CLINTON: You know, he tried to switch from looks to stamina. But this is a man who has called women pigs, slobs, and dogs, and someone who has said pregnancy is an inconvenience to employers, who has said...
TRUMP: I never said that.
CLINTON: ...women don’t deserve equal pay unless they do as good a job as men.
TRUMP: I didn’t say that.
CLINTON: And one of the worst things he said was about a woman in a beauty contest. He loves beauty contests, supporting them and hanging around them. And he called this woman "Miss Piggy." Then he called her "Miss Housekeeping," because she was Latina. Donald, she has a name.
TRUMP: Where did you find this? Where did you find this?
CLINTON: Her name is Alicia Machado.
TRUMP: Where did you find this?
CLINTON: And she has become a US citizen, and you can bet...
TRUMP: Oh, really?
CLINTON: ...she’s going to vote this November.
TRUMP: You know, Hillary is hitting me with tremendous commercials. Some of it’s said in entertainment. Some of it’s said — somebody who’s been very vicious to me, Rosie O’Donnell, I said very tough things to her, and I think everybody would agree that she deserves it and nobody feels sorry for her.
But you want to know the truth? I was going to say something extremely rough to Hillary, to her family, and I said to myself, "I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. It’s inappropriate. It’s not nice."
Trump was getting pummeled on his own record of mistreating women, and he immediately parried with a reference to the affairs.
You see this relationship in the responses of his surrogates, as well. Recall what Kellyanne Conway, his campaign manager said: "He literally could have gone there and made very clear that he came ready to say some rough things if she was going to challenge him about his abuse – about his record on women." (Emphasis mine.) Rutledge, the Arkansas attorney general, replied to questioning about Machado by saying, "If we want to dig back through the '90s on comments made about women…" and running through the Lewinsky scandal.
This trend suggests that the Trump campaign has assigned a specific role for the candidate's attacks on Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct. They’re not deployed right off the bat, or in TV ads, but only as damage control in response to questions about his own record of mistreating women.
That might be smart campaigning; as the old saying goes, "If you’re explaining you’re losing," and trying to parry specific accusations might come off as defensive. But this strategy does have a side effect of implicitly conceding that Trump behaved poorly. Even he and his team aren’t willing to defend his own conduct on the merits. So they deflect to Bill’s — and try to pin it on Hillary in the process.