Donald Trump is very, very excited to talk about Bill Clinton's sexual history, and he's not alone. Stroll around the conservative media universe, from Breitbart to Drudge to Limbaugh, and you'd almost think Clinton was still president and the most urgent task faced by the right was discrediting him. And judging from the people sending angry missives my way via email and social media (not a representative sample of anything, but still suggestive), the outright rage against both Bill and Hillary Clinton burns as bright as it ever did.
It's too early to say whether this will turn out to be a momentary issue, filling up a week or two of the primary campaign and then disappearing. But I doubt it, because that anger is real. The conservatives who were around during the 1990s don't loathe Bill Clinton any less than they ever did, and the prospect of his wife becoming president is bringing all those feelings to the fore.
For the purposes of this article, I won't be assessing the veracity of anyone's accusations against Bill Clinton, which is perhaps a worthy topic of discussion but one for another day. I'm interested in what the issue tells us about where we are now and where we might be going. This was touched off by Donald Trump when he responded to Hillary Clinton saying he has a penchant for sexism by firing back that she can't talk because her husband mistreated women. Though Trump didn't seem to care much about Clinton's sex life 20 years ago, this was like firing a starting gun, with old accusations remade and old feelings renewed.
To understand this, it's important to remember how conservatives felt about Bill Clinton when he was president. It wasn't just that they disliked him personally and disagreed with his policies. Many political opponents also found Clinton infuriating, exasperating, maddening. With that easy charm and that ready smile and that silver tongue, they thought he was as phony as could be. It wasn't just that they found him dishonest, or that he always played it close to the ethical line. It was that again and again, he got away with it. Every time they thought they had him in their clutches, he'd manage to slip free.
The Monica Lewinsky affair, culminating in impeachment, was the apotheosis of this pattern, the ne plus ultra Clinton scandal. Republicans were sure they had him — for Pete's sake, he had an affair with a 20-something intern right there in the White House! Surely the public would finally see the true nature of his villainy and turn away from him in disgust once and for all. But even then, Clinton escaped — and not only that, Republicans were the ones who ended up condemned by the public, and Clinton left office two years later with boffo approval ratings. It was enough to make you lose your mind.
And so many of them did, even those who didn't travel through the fever swamps where no conspiracy theory about Clinton was too outlandish to believe (there were prominent political figures who sincerely thought that Clinton ran a vast drug-smuggling operation as governor of Arkansas and had murdered dozens of his political opponents and allies). When Clinton waltzed out of office, all they were left with was their frustration, disappointment, and a hatred that would not fade.
The frustration wouldn't dissipate as long as Hillary Clinton, whom they always hated nearly as much, could one day become president. Now they have a new story to tell: Not only was Bill Clinton a serial abuser of women, but Hillary Clinton was no victim at all, but rather an active participant in his reign of terror, enabling and covering up his crimes.
This is an appealing story for conservatives with long memories, for multiple reasons. It's not because their concern for women is so profound, and it's not because they've made a careful strategic assessment that this issue is likely to significantly wound Hillary Clinton's presidential bid (it probably won't). What raising this issue does is allow them to fight that old battle again, to say that when they were mocked for their Clinton Derangement Syndrome, they were right all along and Bill Clinton was worse than everyone thought. And unlike things like Hillary's emails or Benghazi, it allows them to wage a frontal assault on both Clintons at the same time.
The media environment today is far different than it was when opponents helped build what Hillary so famously referred to as the "vast right-wing conspiracy." The start-up costs for such a conspiracy have been reduced to almost nothing, and accusations that 20 years ago had to be carefully nurtured if they were to spread will today move through the ecosystem in a matter of minutes. But at the same time, the unity of focus that characterized the right in those days is more difficult to sustain when so many people have the ability to move the agenda in one direction or another.
So those who want nothing more than to keep everyone's attention on Bill Clinton's sexual history won't have an easy task before them. And just as before, their hatred, their mania, and their sheer desperation will probably turn them into their own worst enemies. And the Clintons will escape yet again.