Hillary Clinton's official entry into the 2016 presidential contest is all but inevitable. The former first lady, senator, and secretary of State has a commanding lead in early polling, and has spent the last four years preparing for one last shot at a return to the White House. Early leaks from Clinton organizers and big donors seem intended to intimidate any other Democrat out of the race.
If that sounds familiar, it should. Clinton made the same case early in 2007, just six years out from Bill Clinton's White House exit, and a few months after securing a second Senate term for Hillary. Her inevitability as the first woman nominated to the top of a major-party presidential ticket seemed so secure that most people dismissed Barack Obama's bid as laying the groundwork for a later presidential run, or as leverage to be Hillary's running mate. Democrats, most political observers assumed, wanted a return to the Clinton era and the past glories of the 1990s.
That did not work out so well. Voters, as it turned out, were a lot more interested in the future than in a nostalgia vote. The GOP needs to learn this lesson, because today, Republicans seem intent on living in the past when it comes to the Clintons.
Republicans are once again relitigating the past — only the past this time isn't the 2007-8 failure or Hillary's tenure at State, but 1998 and a woman other than Hillary Clinton. In fact, it's literally the other woman, Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern at the center of the 1998 scandal that led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton and a surprise loss for Republicans in the midterms that followed.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) fired the first salvo last month, attacking the Democratic talking point about the GOP's supposed "war on women" by referring to the Lewinsky scandal, calling Bill Clinton "predatory," and Democrats hypocrites for defending him. A few days later, Paul continued the attack by declaring the former president "a serial philanderer." RNC chair Reince Priebus declared "everything's on the table" when the subject of Lewinsky came up with MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell.
"I don't see how someone just gets a free pass on anything," Priebus said. "I think we're going to have a truckload of opposition research on Hillary Clinton, and some things may be old and some things might be new. But I think everything is at stake when you're talking about the leader of the free world and who we're going to give the keys to run the United States of America."
The reaction from much of the media could best be summed up as: not again. Slate's John Dickerson went so far as to propose a moratorium on all things Lewinsky until 2017. "In fact, let's not discuss any of the 'events' in the Clinton marriage," Dickerson pleaded. "You should embrace this view whether you think Hillary Clinton should be president or not." Mitt Romney appeared on Meet the Press to advise Republicans to focus less on the personal travails from a generation ago and more on Hillary's own record at State. "I think Hillary Clinton if she becomes the nominee will have plenty to discuss about her own record," Romney told David Gregory. "I don't imagine that Bill Clinton will be a big part of it."
The idea of a "Monica moratorium" is silly, but the advice is solid. Republicans have already tried running against the Clintons' marital woes in three elections — 1992, 1996, and especially in 1998, when they had to defend their impeachment in a sixth-year midterm that normally brings healthy gains for the opposition party. Instead, Republicans gained no seats in the Senate, and lost seats in the House. The scandal spooked Al Gore so much that he ran in 2000 as someone who would clean up after the Clintons' personal scandals, and ended up narrowly losing to George W. Bush in the closest race in more than a century — despite the apparent prosperity and peace of the moment.
If voters had little interest in Lewinsky in 1998, why would they take an interest in the affair 18 years later? More importantly, why would voters blame Hillary for the Lewinsky affair when they've long since forgiven the husband who conducted it? Paul and others may see this as a means of skewering the Democratic "war on women" talking point — which is demagogic and silly — but punishing the wife for the philandering of her husband won't win them many points among women, either.
Besides, this is all water under the bridge. Even those disgusted by Bill Clinton's behavior aren't going to change their politics over it at this late date. Romney lost two bids for the presidency and has little credibility among the conservative grassroots because of his campaign failures, but in this case he's correct. Voters won't care about how Hillary handled the affairs of her husband, or even an abuse of power by Bill Clinton in the issuing of presidential pardons in the final days of his term, especially the pardon for Marc Rich.
Voters will care about Secretary Clinton's record at the State Department, especially since it is the only executive experience Hillary can claim, and Republicans have a wealth of material to use. She started by handing a "reset button" to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov as an apology for the Bush years, and ended her term with the U.S.-Russian relationship at its worst level since the end of the Cold War. Her tenure included an Arab Spring policy that fueled a military intervention in Libya without congressional approval, leaving Libya as a failed state where terrorist networks metastasized. That led directly to the sacking of an unconscionably unprotected consulate in Benghazi and the death of four Americans, as well as a rebellion in Mali that required French intervention to stamp out. On the other side of the ledger, Hillary can claim no trade agreements, no peace settlements, and really, no landmark achievements of any kind. Even longtime Clintonite Lanny Davis, who counseled Bill Clinton during the 1998 impeachment, could not name a single achievement from Secretary Clinton in four years at State.
Republicans need to focus on the future, rather than keep relitigating a debate they lost nearly two decades ago. Voters don't need another round of blue-dress nostalgia. The GOP should just stick to the subjects of 2016 rather than party like it's 1998.
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