We’re all very busy, so here’s a time-saver: Let’s all agree to not talk about Monica Lewinsky for at least two years. In fact, let’s not discuss any of the “events” in the Clinton marriage. You should embrace this view whether you think Hillary Clinton should be president or not.
First, we’ll start with the Republicans who are revisiting these issues or flirting with them. Talking about Bill Clinton’s personal relationships, or the scandals of the Clinton years, is likely only to improve Hillary Clinton’s standing with the public. In the 1990s, Hillary Clinton’s approval rating went up when her husband’s affair with an intern was on the front pages. Politicians who bring up these issues risk reanimating these feelings of sympathy. It also diminishes you in the process. If there is some way in which this old topic can be potent, talking about it now, almost three years before an election, is too early to affect anyone’s thinking.
Mostly, though, going down this road conveys the feeling that Republicans are obsessed. The verdict the country rendered during the Clinton impeachment trial was that the obsession had gotten in the way of reason. In the elections of 1998, which Republicans tried to make a referendum on Clinton’s morality, Democrats lost no ground in the Senate and picked up five seats in the House—a historic aberration. It was the first time since 1822 that the nonpresidential party had failed to gain seats in the mid-term election of a president’s second term.
You can try to convince people that Bill Clinton’s behavior is important, but while you’re doing that you’re not talking about whatever programs you support that are actually going to improve people’s lives. During the 1990s, voters decided that they preferred peace and prosperity to moralizing. Why then, when there is anemic prosperity and a much more dangerous world, would people be interested in pawing over that old ground?
Sen. Rand Paul, who hopes to run for president, has talked the most about Bill Clinton as a “sexual predator.” Perhaps it’s a bid to show evangelicals in the Republican Party that he shares their moral code. But throwing “red meat” to evangelical voters feels awfully 1996—a conventional and tiny approach to coalition building when held up against Paul’s larger sweeping promises of creating a futuristic new coalition that attracts Millennials, conservatives, and libertarians.
If you are a Republican and you are asked about these issues, you should follow the example of Mitt Romney. On Meet the Press he said if Hillary Clinton ran for office, she should be judged on her career and not on her husband’s past personal failings.
Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican Party, is following a more dangerous path. In the last few days he has been tweeting about Clinton with a frequency usually reserved for attacking Obamacare but with far less obvious cause. “Remember all the Clinton scandals,” he writes. “That’s not what America needs again.” The Tweet links to a site that asks people to sign a petition to “keep the Clintons out of the White House.”
The Clintons are unpopular in conservative circles, so the RNC is using their name as flypaper to get conservative voters to sign a meaningless petition, with the genuine purpose of capturing their email addresses. (Later they can be asked for money or other kinds of support.) That in itself isn’t a big risk to the party, but the risk it flirts with is that the Clinton attacks distract the GOP from its primary goal: presenting a vision for the future.
The post-election party autopsy that wrestled with creating a modern GOP that spoke to women and minorities claimed that the GOP was too old and backward-looking. It quoted from focus groups in which former Republicans described the party as “scary,” “narrow minded,” “out of touch,” and the party of “stuffy, old men.” Reprising the anti-Clinton talking points of the 1990s will not help undo those impressions.
If you are in Hillary Clinton’s camp, the reasons to not talk about Monica Lewinsky are obvious. It diminishes Hillary by defining her simply as a spouse. But even engaging in a debate about whether this is a worthy topic of conversation is a trap for Hillary fans. Every second you spend dismissing it implicitly supports the idea that it is a worthy topic in evaluating her qualifications for the presidency. That keeps the issue alive, which at the very least creates a fog through which it’s harder to make the new Clinton pitch if she decides to run.
If you’re not rooting for Clinton one way or another and are just interested in presidential politics, then you can safely avoid this issue without being bereft of things to talk about. Hillary Clinton was a senator, ran a rocky but nearly successful presidential campaign, and served as secretary of state. There are at least 10 questions worth analyzing from these years that would actually bear on what kind of a president she would be. That’s enough to keep us all busy.