Columns » Jay Barth

Partying like it's 1999

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Nov. 8, 2016, remains more than a thousand days away, but the 2016 race for president moved into a decidedly higher gear this week. At its party meeting, the Republican National Committee established its calendar for the key early nomination events and moved toward selecting its convention site. The "super PAC" that was central to President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012 — Priorities USA Action — lined up clearly behind the prospective candidacy of Hillary Clinton and the nation's paper of record carried a long-form piece titled "Planet Hillary" on the complex campaign-in-waiting (with a heavily Arkansas flavor) for the 2008 Democratic runner-up.

Finally, key Republicans began trying out a 2016 line of attack on the former first lady and secretary of state centering on Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. It is a throwback script that shows that the Republican Party learned little from the battles of the last years of the 20th century. Focusing its attacks on the Monica Lewinsky case not only created a backlash against the GOP then but it also was crucial to the rise of Hillary Clinton's political career. To try it once again shows just how devoid of creative ideas the modern GOP is and what a challenging opponent Clinton represents.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the GOP 2016 nominating calendar that combines states where his father has thrived in recent years with South Carolina, got the Lewinsky chatter going in responding to questions about whether Mike Huckabee's quickly-infamous "libido" comments are indicative of a broader problem for his party in reaching out to women voters. After babbling about how well the women in his life are doing professionally, Paul quickly pivoted to Lewinsky. "Someone who takes advantage of a young girl in their office? I mean, really. And then they have the gall to stand up and say, 'Republicans are having a war on women?' " said Paul on NBC's "Meet the Press." When host David Gregory asked if the Lewinsky matter should really play a role in evaluating Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate, Paul said that the former secretary of state should be judged on her own merits. But he then connected her to her husband anyway, saying, "Sometimes it's hard to separate one from the other."

The next day, MSNBC's Joe Scarborough picked up the line of attack, "[I]f Hillary Clinton attacks the Republican Party's ... treatment of women and disrespect for women, and suggests they're misogynists ... it does seem to be a fair question to ask right now, a few years out, does the media have a responsibility to say, 'Well, let's see what happened when you were in the White House, and how women were treated when you were in the governor's mansion and the White House?' " For the 24 hours that followed, Fox News looped the images that became iconic throughout the scandal and brought in talking heads to "analyze" the role of the Lewinsky scandal on 2016 politics.

What those who want to talk about the events of the late 1990s anew forget is how well Hillary Clinton performed under the pressure of that scandal and how reminders of it only benefit her politically. Unquestionably, the Lewinsky affair was personally scarring to the first lady. But, politically, it was an event that sent her to stratospheric heights (to borrow imagery from the controversial New York Times Magazine cover article), setting the stage for her candidacy for the U.S. Senate from New York and all that has followed. In polling just before the 1996 re-election of her husband, Hillary Clinton was viewed favorably by less than half of the voting public (49 percent favorable and 43 percent unfavorable); in contrast, Elizabeth Dole was seen as favorable by nearly six in 10 voters with only a quarter viewing her unfavorably. But, as the scandal broke and Hillary Clinton showed public grace under the pressure of the events, her public persona grew (topping out at 66 percent in a February 1999 Gallup survey). It was from that base of popularity that Clinton began her successful Senate campaign.

In 2008, as best analyzed in Anne Kornblut's "Notes from the Cracked Ceiling," the Clinton campaign consciously downplayed gender issues until late in that primary campaign. All signs are that a 2016 campaign will be different and that Clinton will emphasize the historic nature of her candidacy and the symbolic and substantive benefits for American women (and society as a whole) that would accompany her victory. Part of that argument will, of course, focus on GOP foot-dragging on the Violence Against Women Act, opposition to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and, yes, concerns about required contraceptive coverage. It appears many Republicans will not be able to hold back from trekking back in time and focusing anew on Lewinsky. There also is little doubt a veteran Clinton can play her role in any revival of that docudrama with aplomb.

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