This week Donald Trump pulled off yet another remarkable political feat: While several of his rivals have tried and failed to turn Bill Clinton's decades-old sex scandals into a 2016 campaign issue, Trump is actually making it happen. After his complaint about Hillary calling him "ISIS's best recruiter" morphed into a debate about sexism just before Christmas, Trump changed the conversation again, tweeting on Monday "If Hillary thinks she can unleash her husband, with his terrible record of women abuse, while playing the women's card on me, she's wrong!" Tuesday on the Today show, he added, "there certainly were a lot of abuse of women, you look at whether it's Monica Lewinsky or Paula Jones, or any of them, and that certainly will be fair game."
Now with the former president set to begin campaigning for his wife in New Hampshire on Monday, other Republican candidates, including Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson, are joining in the discussion of Clinton's past sexual improprieties. The question now is whether their attacks on Bill Clinton can damage his wife's campaign, while years ago they only boosted the first lady's popularity.
As the New York Times notes, in some ways Trump is "an imperfect messenger on the issue of fidelity," considering that his marital issues were documented in the tabloids for many years, and he was once accused of marital rape (Ivana Trump subsequently walked back her claim). And aside from his own spotty marital history, Trump has a long history of attempting to curry favor with the Clintons and dismissing the allegations against the former president. Over the years, Trump invited the Clintons to his wedding, donated to their foundation, called Bill his favorite president, and declared Hillary would be a "great president or vice-president."
He also defended the president against the "moralists" and hypocrites pursuing the Lewinsky scandal many times, saying Clinton would have been "everybody's hero" if he'd cheated with a supermodel, and "if the Clinton affair proves anything it is that the American people don’t care about the private lives and personal of our political leaders so long as they are doing the job."
While pulling a 180 on the Clintons might destroy another candidate, Trump is spinning his reversal as more proof of his business acumen. "As a world-class businessman, you have to get along with everybody," Trump told reporters on Tuesday. "I was able to get along with Clinton, I was able to get along with virtually every politician you can imagine ... When I went to Washington and I needed something, I got it." And of course, his willingness to accuse the former president of abusing women even as CNN's Don Lemon shut down a conservative commentator for making that same point reinforces the idea that Trump is willing to speak his mind.
Still, some Clinton supporters insist that Trump's focus on old sexual-misconduct allegations will only hurt Trump. "Why would he even bring Bill up? What good would that do? That’s not what America is really worried about right now," Bob Withington, who came to hear Hillary Clinton speak in New Hampshire on Tuesday, told the Boston Herald. "I don’t think people in this country are going to pay attention to that one bit."
Writing in the Hill, former Democratic congressional aide Brent Budowsky argued that taking on one of the greatest living politicians isn't a very smart move on Trump's part. "My advice to Trump, which he will regret not taking, is don't mess with Bill Clinton, who will bury him with a wink of his eye and a smile on his face," he said.
But this week, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus said that while it may be hard for Clinton supporters to admit, "in the larger scheme of things, Bill Clinton’s conduct toward women is far worse than any of the offensive things that Trump has said." She continued:
Which leads to the next question: What is the relevance of Bill Clinton’s conduct for Hillary Clinton’s campaign? Ordinarily, I would argue that the sins of the husband should not be visited on the wife. What Bill Clinton did counts against him, not her, and I would include in that her decision to stick with him. What happens inside a marriage is the couple’s business, and no one else’s, even when both halves crave the presidency.
But Hillary Clinton has made two moves that lead me, gulp, to agree with Trump on the “fair game” front. She is (smartly) using her husband as a campaign surrogate, and simultaneously (correctly) calling Trump sexist.
A Wall Street Journal opinion piece echoed her point, saying President Clinton "was a genuine sexual harasser in the classic definition of exploiting his power as a workplace superior, and the Clinton entourage worked hard to smear and discredit his many women accusers." It goes on to recount how Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal, who remains a friend of the couple, smeared Monica Lewinsky, and says this reflects on the "standards that would prevail in another Clinton Presidency."
So far the Clintons have remained mostly silent on the new round of accusations, but with Trump vowing to keep up his counterattacks, we'll soon see if the Clinton sex scandals are a serious campaign liability, or just a holiday distraction. "She's got a major problem, it happens to be right in her house," Trump said of Hillary's sexism allegations on Tuesday. "If she wants to do that we're going to go right after the president, the ex-president, and we'll see how it all comes out."