Why Republicans should just leave the Monica Lewinsky story alone

Monica Lewinsky is back!

The Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal captivated the nation's attention in 1998 and beyond. Here are the Clinton family's reactions to the scandal, through the years. (Pamela Kirkland/The Washington Post)

The one-time paramour of the sitting president of the United States is featured in Vanity Fair breaking her silence and telling her side of the story. Even though that story isn't out yet, it's already one of the most clicked-on pieces of content on the Internet.

The temptation for Republicans in all of this is obvious.  Hillary Clinton is the clear frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 and an early favorite to keep the White House for her party.  Knocking Clinton back a bit has to be the focus of not just Republicans thinking about running for president in 2016 but of the entire GOP over these next months. Reopening one of the most lurid episodes in the history of the modern presidency would seem to be a no-brainer for the party.

"Seem" is the key word in that last sentence. Dig even slightly below the surface of the Lewinsky issue and you quickly see that Republicans would do well to stay as far away from it as possible.

Let's first look at this Pew chart documenting Hillary Clinton's approval ratings from the time she became first lady in the early 1990s until she retired as secretary of state at the end of 2012.


Image courtesy of Pew

As you can see, Hillary's numbers were among their highest ever during the heart of the Lewinsky scandal. Here's how Pew analyzed Hillary Clinton's numbers in August 1998: "In contrast to her husband, Hillary Clinton continues to draw high marks from the public. Two-thirds of Americans (66%) say they admire Hillary Clinton’s decision to stand by her husband and nearly as many (63%) have a favorable opinion of the First Lady."

Take a step back even beyond Hillary.  While Bill Clinton's personal approval ratings took a major hit in the wake of his (eventual) admission of an extramarital affair with Lewinsky, the ultimate political outcome of the impeachment proceedings led by Republicans in Congress was a major rebuke to the GOP. While the Republican base embraced their party's tactics against Clinton, the aggressiveness of the GOP's approach over what many believed was a personal matter led to an equally fired-up Democratic base and a feeling among independents that Republicans were focused on all the wrong things. Democrats picked up four House seats and broke even in the Senate in the 1998 midterms, the first midterm election since 1934(!) in which the president's party didn't lose any ground in either chamber.

The lesson for Republicans should be simple. The re-emergence of Monica Lewinsky might look like the perfect opportunity to take some of the shine off of Hillary Clinton's presidential bid and remind people of the sordidness that they didn't like about the Clintons in the White House. But it's not — or even close.  Attacking Bill Clinton and, by extension, Hillary Clinton over Lewinsky doesn't weaken them — and especially her: It strengthens them.

Here's the Peanuts version of this issue for Republicans. And, for the purposes of this example, Monica Lewinsky is the football, and Charlie Brown is the Republican party.  (For an amazingly detailed analysis of this Lucy vs. Charlie dynamic, check out this Reddit thread.)


And yet, there is some chatter among leading Republicans — particularly Rand Paul — about the Clintons and Lewinsky.  Here's Paul on the Clintons (and Democrats) in an interview for C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" series in February:

The Democrats can't say, 'We're the great defenders of women's rights in the workplace and we will defend you against some kind of abusive boss that uses their position of authority to take advantage of a young women,' when the leader of their party, the leading fundraiser in the country, is Bill Clinton, who was a perpetrator of that kind of sexual harassment. Anybody who wants to take money from Bill Clinton or have a fundraiser has a lot of explaining to do.

Now, I get what Paul is doing here.  The Republican base has softened on Bill Clinton (and the Clinton brand more broadly) since he left office in 2000, and Paul wants to remind them of the things about the Clintons they used to loathe.  But if Paul is doing that to rev up the Republican base in advance of the 2016 election — and I think he is —aren't there plenty of other less-risky ways to do it? Like, say, Obamacare? Or Benghazi?

Fixating on the Clintons has proven to be a dicey proposition for the Republican party over the past two decades. By any objective measure, it simply hasn't worked. With so many other issue options — up to and including a sitting Democratic president not named Clinton that the Republican base hates — it makes little sense for the GOP to spend even a single day talking about Monica Lewinsky. That fact doesn't mean they won't. But it does mean they shouldn't.

In an article for Vanity Fair magazine landing on shelves Thursday, Monica Lewinsky hits back at some of her critics, including Hillary Clinton and Beyoncé. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

 

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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