Opinion writer

NBC News reports that Team Trump is distributing talking points to surrogates that instruct them to accuse Hillary Clinton of enabling Bill Clinton’s affairs.

The full talking points, which were posted by NBC on twitter and are intended as a response to criticism of Trump for urging former Miss Universe Alicia Machado to lose weight, accuse Hillary of being complicit in the mistreatment of Bill’s women. There’s this:

* Hillary Clinton trying to present herself as some sort of feminist champion is a joke.

And this:

* Hillary Clinton bullied and smeared women like Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky.

And this:

* Are you blaming Hillary for Bill’s infidelities? No, however, she’s been an active participant in trying to destroy the women who has [sic] com forward with a claim.

This suggests that the Trump campaign really is going all in on this, which in turn raises the possibility that Trump may bring it up at one of the two remaining debates.

But I’m still skeptical that Trump will really go here in the high profile setting of a debate.

For one thing, as I noted yesterday, back in the 1990s, Trump himself not only dismissed Bill’s affairs as a non-story; he also personally denigrated both Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky. He called Jones a “loser,” and mocked Bill Clinton for having an affair with a woman (Lewinsky) who lacked the “beauty” and “sophistication” of Marilyn Monroe, the sort of lover a winner president takes. You’d think that a well-prepared debate moderator would be ready to ask Trump how he squares his current chivalrous defense of Jones and Lewinsky as victims of both Clintons with his own personal ridicule and belittling of them at the time. That might create a somewhat embarrassing moment.

For another, as Philip Bump points out in a good piece, there is plenty of polling evidence showing that public approval of Hillary Clinton jumped amid the Monica Lewinsky affair. As Bump notes, dredging this up could backfire for Trump among the constituencies he needs to improve among:

Matt Drudge had the first story about the Lewinsky affair in mid-January 1998….Among all Americans, Clinton went from 42 percent viewing her positively to 52 immediately after and 60 percent by the end of January. By the end of the year, her favorability was at 64 percent….

In February 1998, CNN and Gallup asked Americans whether they admired Clinton for how she’d handled the Lewinsky affair; 72 percent said they did. In August, Fox News asked whether people thought Clinton was a strong woman for sticking with Bill Clinton or if she was being foolish. Nearly 6-in-10 said she was a strong woman….

Trump desperately needs to bring white college-educated women back to his campaign. They supported Mitt Romney in 2012 but have rejected Trump this year. It seems unlikely that the strategy of digging up the Clinton affairs will resonate with that group.

And guess what — Republicans agree with this. A few months ago, I interviewed GOP strategist Rick Wilson, who worked for Rudy Giuliani during his aborted 2000 Senate run against one Hillary Clinton. Wilson, a frequent critic of Trump, told me that he focus-grouped attacks on Hillary Clinton over Bill’s infidelities to see how they’d play among swing voters, and discarded the idea as total folly:

“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.”

Ah, but that was nearly two decades ago, you’ll rejoin. True! But Republicans tested the same type of attacks this year, and they still engender sympathy for Clinton among women to this day. NBC News reports:

Tim Miller and Katie Packer, two Republican strategists who oppose Trump, conducted focus groups before the primaries where they tested attacks tied to the former president’s sex scandals with female swing voters. They concluded it was a political dead end.

“These voters were completely turned off and disgusted by it,” Miller said in an e-mail. “We found time and again these attacks turned Hillary into a victim and that it engendered sympathy for her.”

Packer said women showed little interest in judging Hillary Clinton’s behavior toward her husband’s accusers or the inner workings of her marriage.

“We know this is candy for Republican base voters … but it doesn’t do you any favors with women we need to win elections,” Packer added in a phone interview.

Now, perhaps Team Trump has concluded that they really need to get Hillary Clinton angry before a national audience, and that bringing up Bill’s affairs — and accusing Hillary of enabling them — is the way to do that. But there’s simply no chance that Clinton has not been preparing to respond to this type of attack for months at this point. So that seems too risky to even try.

No, what’s probably going on here is that the Trump campaign is trying to get the media to talk about the idea that Hillary’s supposed enabling of Bill’s affairs should somehow undercut her highlighting of Trump’s misogyny and chauvinism. That’s why Trump and his advisers keep telling the press that Trump himself didn’t bring up Bill’s affairs at the debate — even though he could have! — out of respect for Chelsea Clinton…oh, and by the way, political reporters, make sure you mention Bill’s affairs and Hillary’s alleged enabling of them in your stories about Trump’s self-restraint!

It’s not likely that Trump himself will dare go here when he’s face to face with Clinton before tens of millions of people.