One Republican strategist tells me that he thinks this effort is very likely to backfire — and he is in a good position to make this prediction, because he was actually involved in a previous GOP campaign’s effort to research whether this would work on Hillary Clinton.
GOP strategist Rick Wilson was a senior adviser to former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s campaign for the New York Senate seat in 2000 that Hillary Clinton ended up winning. Before Giuliani dropped out of the race (to be replaced by Rick Lazio), Wilson and his fellow strategists extensively tested attacks on the Clintons over Whitewater and Bill’s sexual exploits.
“We tested Whitewater and it was a nothingburger,” the Florida-based Wilson tells me. “We did polling and focus groups, testing the whole pantheon of Clinton scandals.”
While this was done in New York, Wilson, a frequent critic of Trump, recounts that the findings are still relevant to the current national contest, because the Rudy campaign tested reactions among “soft Democrats, soft Republicans, and independents,” i.e., swing voters. These voters, Wilson says, “didn’t care,” dismissing it all as “old news” that was “asked and answered.”
In recent days, Trump has attacked Clinton over her husband’s sexual affairs, casting her as an enabler of them and, by extension, blasting both for conspiring to abuse the women in question. But Wilson says the response to the testing of attacks over Bill’s affairs was even worse than on Whitewater.
“We tested Bill Clinton’s sex stuff, and the reaction was violently in opposition to us,” Wilson says. “And this was 2000, during the window when Bill Clinton was a national disgrace. The blowback from trying to use Bill against Hillary was through the roof. Women thought she deserved that Senate seat because of what Bill had done.”
It’s worth noting, of course, that Trump’s efforts to dredge all this stuff up are about more than the specifics. They are designed to remind voters that there are always unresolved controversies and ethical clouds hanging around the Clintons, that for decades they’ve been mired in everything people hate about Washington. As Trump himself puts it: “It’s the one thing with her, whether it’s Whitewater or whether it’s Vince or whether it’s Benghazi. It’s always a mess with Hillary.” It’s always possible, of course, that some of this stuff could gel in a new way with more recent information about Clinton, such as the emerging details about her email setup.
But Wilson suggests that, if anything, these lines of attack could undermine efforts to exploit those negative impressions of Clinton.
“It might humanize her a little bit,” Wilson said. “Trump already has the conspiracy theory demographic locked up. This is going to continue to solidify the strong dislike among female voters for Donald Trump. This is an irrational act by an irrational man.”
It’s worth adding, by the way, that since all that tested in 2000 as old news, sixteen more years have passed.