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Democrats’ ongoing reevaluation of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, explained

A struggle over history and the meaning of #MeToo.

Fifth Annual Town & Country Philanthropy Summit - Panels Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Town & Country

Bill Clinton has a new book out, not a memoir but a thriller co-authored with James Patterson called The President Is Missing. But courtesy of a tough interview with NBC News’s Craig Melvin on the Today show, the promotional tour has rapidly become a venue for re-arguing his 1998 impeachment — a political drama from which he emerged triumphant 20 years ago, but which is being re-conceptualized in the era of #MeToo.

Last fall, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) said that looking back on it, Clinton should have resigned over an affair with Monica Lewinsky that involved such a stark disparity of power. Clinton disagreed in a June 1 CBS News interview and then again even more forcefully on Monday morning’s Today show.

“I think I did the right thing,” he told Melvin. “I defended the Constitution.”

The argument is, on one level, sort of pointless in light of its inherently hypothetical nature. But it does have some concrete stakes related to Clinton’s status as an elder statesman of the Democratic Party. To say that he should have resigned (as I did in November) is a way of saying that Clinton should not be a speaker at the 2020 Democratic Convention and should not hit the campaign trail in the 2018 midterms, and that Democrats should not defend such conduct in the future or restrain themselves from criticizing it in Republicans.

Beyond the specifics, it’s an example of the shifting currents of opinion and balance of power within the country. The forces of Christian moralism carry much less weight in American politics and society than they did a generation ago, and so the Republican Party has become much friendlier to the view that politicians’ personal conduct is irrelevant as long as they serve as loyal allies on key policy questions like abortion.

Conversely, the intense post-Trump political mobilization of American women has made feminists much more assertive in Democratic Party politics, and the #MeToo cultural upheaval has caused progressives to rethink conduct they were happy to dismiss as “private” 20 years ago as in fact reflecting urgent public concerns.

Clinton and Lewinsky in the #MeToo era

Clinton was impeached on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. The prosecution was based on the theory that he did illegal things to cover up conduct that was embarrassing but not criminal.

He defended himself by offering the theory that, for starters, the illegality of the cover-up was questionable but, more fundamentally, that the whole thing was an essentially private matter. The relationship with Lewinsky was personal. The Paula Jones lawsuit was personal (and he was innocent), and the deceptive deposition he gave in the Jones lawsuit was, fundamentally, an effort to mislead his wife and daughter and spare his family embarrassment.

The sexual harassment angle was mentioned at the time, often by conservatives looking to tweak liberals for their defense of Clinton, but it never took center stage in the debate in part because Republican Party elected officials weren’t very interested in the argument and in part because Lewinsky herself was not accusing Clinton of anything.

Institutional feminist groups rallied to Clinton’s defense. Journalist Nina Burleigh’s quip, “I would be happy to give him a blowjob just to thank him for keeping abortion legal,” served as an extreme version of the generally prevailing sentiment. The country was, on the whole, much more conservative on sex and gender issues in the 1990s than it was today. And Clinton was the first president to serve as a consistent ally of institutional feminism on policy grounds. Especially in light of the then-recent backdrop of Clarence Thomas’s confirmation, nobody believed that conservatives were talking about sexual harassment in good faith.

Twenty years later, things look and feel different. For starters, the crux of the #MeToo movement is that individual instances of sexual harassment are so numerous and the available means of redress so inadequate that the topic of “private” misconduct is in fact a matter of public concern. Modern thinking about sexual assault has also prompted many people to reconsider why so little heed was paid to Juanita Broaddrick’s more grievous allegations about Clinton.

Trump and the decline of Christian moralism

At the same time, the kind of Christian moralism that was such a hallmark of 1990s conservative politics has greatly diminished in the modern day largely because church attendance has fallen steadily.

Once upon a time, it would have been hard to imagine a person with Trump’s unrepentantly un-Christian lifestyle decisively winning a GOP primary, but in 2016, he found himself in possession of a solid base of self-identified evangelicals who don’t actually go to church. And while Trump does not really manifest any personal signs of religiosity, he has proven himself to be a loyal policy ally of religious conservatives on topics ranging from abortion to contraceptive access to “religious liberty” exemptions to LGBTQ rights litigation to school vouchers to the passel of Christian Zionist figures he invited to the opening ceremony of the new US Embassy in Jerusalem. Trump is solid on the issues, and that’s good enough for today’s Christian right.

At the same time, while what Trump has publicly professed is bad enough from a standpoint of traditional morality, what he’s been accused of doing by Rachel Crooks, Summer Zervos, and others is much worse.

Hillary Clinton tried to press this to her advantage in the 2016 campaign — and it’s universally agreed upon that the release of audiotape featuring Donald Trump telling a casual acquaintance that he likes to “grab ’em by the pussy” was a near-death experience for the campaign. But Trump was able to successfully wield misconduct accusations against Bill Clinton to muddy the waters.

Part of Gillibrand’s goal in coming out swinging against Clinton — and of taking a leading role in pushing Al Franken out of the Senate — is to ensure that Democrats aren’t vulnerable to such wrecking tactics in the future.

An important battle for the future

Of course, Democrats aren’t going to travel back in time to force Bill Clinton to resign in the late 1990s.

But it also now seems clear that Clinton won’t be able to avoid answering these questions in future public appearances, which may well make him less likely to want to make public appearances in the future. There is also a strong likelihood that Clinton, who has been a mainstay of Democratic National Conventions for decades, won’t be speaking in 2020 or deployed as a campaign surrogate this fall for the first time in a generation.

Yet it’s also clear that another cohort of Democrats — especially those on the older, maler side — are uncomfortable with the direction Gillibrand is going.

That’s in part a disagreement about political tactics, with some seeing it as foolish for Democrats to try to hold themselves to a high standard of conduct when Republicans hold Trump to no standard at all. But it’s probably better to think of it as primarily a disagreement about substance and the still-ambiguous legacy of #MeToo.

In one view, the story is essentially that hard-working investigative journalists revealed a handful of cases of spectacularly egregious malfeasance by a handful of prominent men — Roger Ailes and Harvey Weinstein, most obviously — and that’s all to the good. The other view, implicit in the hashtag, is that the real issue is not the most egregious cases of misconduct but the extent to which the sheer quantity of harassment normalizes the mistreatment of women and holds them back in a way that calls for a sea change in attitudes, standards of behavior, and evaluation of public figures.

In the former view, nothing in the Lewinsky story is particularly damning (though if you believe Broaddrick, that’s another matter), while in the latter view, Clinton is exactly the type of person whose conduct deserves a new, much harsher look.