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The desperate shadow campaign to redefine Hillary Clinton
Republicans are trying to pull Hillary back to 1992
 
The GOP's attacks on Hillary feel awfully old.
The GOP's attacks on Hillary feel awfully old. (Win McNamee/Getty Images

To understand how fearful Republicans are of a Hillary Clinton campaign juggernaut in 2016, you need only look at the counter-campaign some Republicans are already waging on her.

In the latest instance, an ominous-sounding report from the conservative Washington Free Beacon — "The Hillary Papers" — revisits the well-worn line that Clinton is cold and calculating. The story, based on personal papers from a deceased Clinton friend, Diane Blair, addresses Clinton's response to her husband's affair with Monica Lewinsky, her work on health care, and other issues from the 1990s.

Two tidbits stick out. The first: Clinton allegedly referred to Lewinsky as a "narcissistic loony toon." The second: a 1992 memo from Bill Clinton's pollsters concluded that "what voters find slick in Bill Clinton, they find ruthless in Hillary."

"Narcissistic loony toon" is maybe the most milquetoast insult ever leveled in Washington. Compare that to other examples of colorful language by D.C. denizens, and Clinton's assessment of a woman who helped sully her marriage seems downright diplomatic.

"Ruthlessness" is the main dig here, but the case is hardly convincing. It's more anti-Clinton spaghetti being thrown against a wall to see if anything sticks.

The claim is pegged to a two-decades-old comment about a then-little-known wife of a presidential candidate. And there's the rub with this kind of Clinton attack: it only works when paired with a time machine.

Following her husband's presidency, Clinton won two terms in the U.S. Senate, ran for president, and served as secretary of State. She now enjoys an unrivaled level of popularity among the general public. She engenders strong distaste among her detractors, but she's well-liked overall.

Yes, a politician's past is fair fodder, but when it comes to Clinton, these 90s-era digs aren't revelatory — they're stale. (A serious headline referencing the latest story reads "Report: New documents reveal Clintons.") There will be some voters in 2016 who weren't even alive when the Lewinsky story broke.

This is why it's so strange to see Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) flogging the old Lewinsky scandal to argue that Democrats — not Republicans — have a problem with female voters. Last month, he labeled Bill a "sexual predator," and said that though "it's not Hillary's fault" it was nevertheless "a factor in judging Bill Clinton in history." In a subsequent interview he added that "anybody who wants to take money from Bill Clinton or have a fundraiser has a lot of explaining to do."

This is a ridiculous argument. It's simply "bad form," as The Week's Marc Ambinder put it, to vicariously attack the wife of a cheating husband. And more importantly, "if the Lewinsky ick somehow was going to stall Hillary Clinton, it would already have done so. And it didn't."

All of this is part of a broader GOP aim to define Clinton and other Democratic candidates before they can define themselves. The party is "building opposition research files on each potential candidate and making preparations to bracket their travel with GOP talking points by dispatching its nationwide network of 14,000 Republican surrogates," according to Yahoo's Chris Moody.

"Tearing down those brands is important to us," one RNC official said of the recasting effort.

To be sure, this tactic isn't new or unique. What's notable is just how weak these efforts are. If all the anti-Clinton shadow campaign has are some decades-old talking points, then the GOP is probably better off just building that time machine.

 
Jon Terbush is an associate editor at TheWeek.com covering politics, sports, and other things he finds interesting. He has previously written for Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, and Business Insider.

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