Bill Clinton celebrates his 73rd birthday today. Even though he is three years younger than Joe Biden and four years younger than Bernie Sanders (and three months younger than Donald Trump), the 42nd president seems more and more like a figure from an increasingly distant past. As Todd Purdum observes, he is for the most part roundly ignored by today’s Democrats:
Clinton is not quite a full-on pariah in the modern Democratic Party—the one he did so much to reshape and rebuild. But some of his signature policies are the butt of attacks by the current crop of Democratic contenders, and the sitting president has floated the utterly unproven conspiracy theory that Clinton may have had something to do with the jailhouse death of Jeffrey Epstein, the serial sex trafficker whose company he once kept.
Clinton’s checkered past with women — his acknowledged infidelity and serious allegations of predation — left him sidelined as a surrogate in last year’s midterms, too toxic to raise money or stump for candidates in the #MeToo era. He is no longer the party’s reigning “Secretary of Explaining Stuff,” as Barack Obama famously dubbed him. It seems more than likely that he won’t have a prime speaking slot at next summer’s Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee — if he appears at all.
In part, Clinton’s eclipse is the product of the simple fact that the more recent Democratic president, Barack Obama, gradually supplanted the Big Dog as the symbol of the sort of pragmatic left-of-center political tradition the Arkansan once exemplified; with time, Biden may become more associated with it than the man who signed Biden’s famous 1994 crime bill. But without question, changing times and the horrifying example of Trump have made Clinton’s behavior toward women the object of increasingly bipartisan and trans-ideological condemnation:
By the end of Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 campaign — in which Donald Trump went so far as to bring three women who’d accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct to a debate — the bloom was well off the rose. The following year’s revelations about sexual allegations against powerful men from Harvey Weinstein to Matt Lauer cast Clinton’s history with Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey, and, above all, Monica Lewinsky in a stark new light. It is a perverse reality that Trump is given a ho-hum pass by the public for repeated allegations of sexual misconduct and comments that would have convulsed the country in Clinton’s day — and that indeed did so — while Clinton’s reputation has been retroactively punished further.
Fairly or not, Democrats largely want to forget about Clinton, while Republicans have other fish to fry; those who want to settle old scores tend to focus not on the 42nd president but on his wife. But that does raise a fascinating question: How would the political world be treating First Gentleman Bill Clinton had his wife won in November 2016?
Pretty clearly, any inquiry into the culture of male sexual entitlement and its brutal meaning for women generally, or into specific incidents of misconduct by powerful men at the summit of our political and civic life, would routinely touch on the alleged misdeeds of any man residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. No matter how hard a President Hillary Clinton tried to consign her husband to a limited (say, diplomatic or humanitarian efforts) or ceremonial role, his very presence near the apex of political power would make such a sequestration impossible. To the extent that restive progressives were unhappy with HRC, the example of her philandering centrist husband would be too convenient to ignore even for a moment. And then there’s how Republicans would surely utilize Bill to demonize Hill.
In the parallel universe wherein Hillary Clinton had paid more attention to Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin and had converted her solid popular-vote plurality into a victory, Republicans would have very likely discarded Trump as a leader and returned (despite their own regular problems with sexual misconduct in the ranks of their elected officials) to the more sanctimonious posture of sexual rectitude they exhibited when trying to remove Bill from office. You can bet the Republican Congress the Clintons would have faced upon moving into the White House in 2017 would have been extremely interested in investigating the old claims against Bill given his renewed national prominence as First Gentleman, and there might well have been some prosecutors testing the statutes of limitations involving his alleged crimes.
For that matter, had Hillary won, the odds are very high that Republicans would have held onto and likely even augmented their congressional majorities in 2018, leading into a holy conservative crusade to eject the Clintons forever in 2020 behind the candidacy of Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz — or perhaps a woman like Nikki Haley. With Republicans frantic to cut into the pro-Democratic gender gap among women, it is 100 percent certain they would never for a moment let voters forget the tales of Clintonian lechery, infidelity, and sexual harassment and coercion (if not violence), and President Hillary Clinton’s enabling behavior in denying it, excusing it, or simply putting up with it for so many years. Everything we know about Bill Clinton suggests he would have demanded opportunities to respond to his tormenters. And as always, HRC would be in a no-win situation, torn between expectations that she “stand by her man” and demands that she make a supreme example of him for misconduct (totally aside from her personal feelings). As novel as it would have been to deal with a First Gentleman in the White House, could America have coped with a marital separation, or even a divorce, involving two presidents? The mind reels.
So as hard as it may be for that ultimate extrovert Bill Clinton to embrace the shadows in which he now exists, it could be infinitely worse.