About the only political conviction uniting Americans in Election Year 2014 is that Election Year 2016 will be about Hillary Clinton. The likelihood of her unannounced candidacy has stilled the rest of the slim Democratic field, forged a truce among most of the party’s congenitally warring factions, and induced past Clinton antagonists like David Geffen to disarm. At the fractured GOP, where the presidential timber is as thick as a forest if not as towering, Hillary is also a unifier of sorts as the de facto opponent-in-waiting. And Republicans are fine with that too. With the Clintons, you get scandal and the serious shot at victory that Clinton-scaled scandal seems to promise, even if you have no candidate of comparable stature to pit against them.
Such is the right’s undying theory, anyway. But what scandal are we talking about this time? There’s Benghazi, of course, pounded daily at every conservative venue, as it has been since emerging mid–Romney campaign as a last-ditch hope for bringing down the Obama administration. But Benghazi will be a nonfactor in 2016, as it was in 2012, because most voters don’t give a damn—any more than they care about Vladimir Putin’s Crimea grab, which will also be pinned on Clinton’s reign at State—in no small part because the Bush administration’s Iraq fiasco depressed public engagement in foreign affairs for a generation. A more promising alternative might be the persistent odor of sleaze that trails the Clinton Foundation, the subject of both New York Times and Washington Post scrutiny last summer. As Alec MacGillis of The New Republic summed up what we know thus far about the Clinton Global Initiative, there’s “an undertow of transactionalism in the glittering annual dinners, the fixation on celebrity, and a certain contingent of donors whose charitable contributions and business interests occupy an uncomfortable proximity.” Those proximities will be fodder for many dense flowcharts to come, as will the tentacles of Hillary’s extreme speaking fees (an estimated $400,000 for two talks to Goldman Sachs alone).
Yet what the right really wants to talk about when it talks about the Clintons is none of the above. The conversation will quickly turn to sex. It always does. It always has. And it already is.
The sex talk began after New Year’s. Rand Paul, the closest the GOP has to a presidential front-runner, denounced Bill Clinton’s “predatory behavior” with women on Meet the Press. Fox News played host to Kathleen Willey, whose charge of an Oval Office sexual assault by Clinton, made on 60 Minutes in 1998, remains unsubstantiated, as does her insinuation that he played a role in her husband’s suicide. The Washington Free Beacon, a rising right-wing website, mined the Diane Blair papers, the archives of a deceased political-science professor and Hillary friend held at the University of Arkansas. The most breathlessly bandied discovery: an undated letter to an unknown addressee, circa 1976, in which Bill Clinton, just turning 30, “closed by confessing that he had fallen asleep the night before while reading an erotic love poem from the seventeenth century.” (That would be Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.”) At another right-wing outlet, the Washington Examiner, the pundit Michael Barone alerted his readers in late March that “a decade ago,” Clinton traveled on “the private plane of a man later convicted of having sex with a minor.” It apparently hasn’t occurred to these outraged moral arbiters that the projection of sex scandals onto a couple campaigning as beloved national grandparents—Bill Clinton turns 70 in 2016, Hillary 69—will strike many Americans as ludicrous.
The mainstream press is nonetheless following the right’s lead, as it did last time under the merry tutelage of Matt Drudge. In late February, Politico posted a helpful Cliffs Notes remembrance of Clinton scandals past, pegged to the fact that thousands of pages of documents had yet to be made public by the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock. These secret files, we were told, will “fuel media attention to the Clintons’ past and pose a threat to Hillary Clinton’s possible presidential ambitions in 2016.” A slideshow revisits Whitewater, Travelgate, and the Rose Law Firm—all of which failed to incite mass indignation (or much public comprehension) when litigated ad infinitum two decades ago, and none of which resulted in proof of criminal wrongdoing by the Clintons. But these are just amuse-bouches before the main courses on the menu: Vince Foster and Monica Lewinsky. Foster was the Hillary Clinton law partner and friend who shot himself while serving as deputy White House counsel but whom Clinton haters tried for years to portray as a murder victim, silenced to cover up a supposed affair with Hillary. (According to Foster’s wife, among others, there was no affair, and the police and two independent counsels all concurred that Foster had committed suicide while suffering from clinical depression.) Lewinsky remains the only old Clinton scandal that needs no introduction. That incident of extramarital oral sex and the lying that accompanied it led to the sole impeachment in American history of an elected president. Clinton was acquitted of the charges in the Senate and in public opinion. One can only imagine what the House managers of his 1999 Senate trial—among them Lindsey Graham—make of the March Wall Street Journal–NBC News poll in which Clinton ties with Pope Francis for the highest approval rating among a slate of world figures. (Hillary follows right behind.)