Now, they’re suited up to relitigate. Stray tweets in the wake of the Roy Moore scandal have coalesced into thinkpieces denouncing the former president. “Bill Clinton should have resigned,” intones Matthew Yglesias at Vox. “I Believe Juanita,” trumpets Michelle Goldberg on the New York Times op-ed page.
Both of these pieces reflect a broader approach among liberals toward Clinton’s behavior. (There are exceptions.) They offer Clinton up as a sacrificial lamb to avoid charges of partisanship, and at the same time they excuse themselves of sheltering him until it became convenient.
Despite the headline, Goldberg’s piece is a carnival of equivocations. She believes Juanita, sure, but she believes only Juanita, and only now. Kathleen Willey? Her account of getting groped in the Oval Office sounds reasonable. “But,” Goldberg writes, “Willey also accused the Clintons of having her husband and then her cat killed. Must we believe that, too?” No, we must not. But we shouldn’t summarily dismiss her assault allegation, either. As for Jones, Goldberg dismisses her as a cog in the vast right-wing conspiracy.
Harping on this conspiracy is Goldberg’s way of exonerating herself and other Democrats for decidedly disbelieving women way back when. “In this environment,” she patiently explains, “it would have been absurd to take accusations of assault and harassment made against Clinton at face value.” Goldberg concludes by saying that blind belief in any accusation can be used against the believer. But she’s missing a big part of the picture: In Clinton’s case, most Democrats didn’t even say “if true.” They just said “false.”
Yglesias lets Democrats off the hook, too. He writes off the grave allegations against Clinton from everyone except Lewinsky, because apparently those are the only charges we can safely take seriously. Then, he argues that “the policy case that Democrats needed Clinton in office was weak.” In other words, the problem wasn’t that liberals stood by an accused serial sexual abuser. It was that they stood by an accused serial sexual abuser and didn’t get anything out of it.
It gets worse: “Now that Hillary is out of electoral politics … there’s no excuse for Democrats not to look back at these events with more objectivity.”
That single sentence gives away the game. Democrats don’t deserve credit today for refusing to be hypocrites. They already are. They stood by Clinton in the ’90s because they thought it was in their political interest, and they batted back attempts during the 2016 election to bring up what it would mean to have an accused rapist as first gentleman for the same reason. That impulse may have been rooted in a desire not to see Hillary Clinton punished for her husband’s wrongs. Yet instead of interrogating that reasoning, liberals did their best to ignore the problem.
Democrats are years ahead of Republicans on issues of sexual abuse from a policy point of view. But from a political one, so far they’ve gotten off easy. Though right now it’s Republicans who are under fire for putting an alleged pedophile up for election and an alleged assaulter in the White House, history tells us there’s no reason to think the next man who gets caught won’t have a “D” next to his name. Maybe it’ll be a rising star rather than a controversy-courting extremist who thinks there’s sharia law in Illinois. Liberals will then have a chance to really prove they’re not still stuck in the ’90s. For now, they’re ready to reckon with Bill Clinton. They’re just not ready to reckon with themselves.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Hillary Clinton referred to Bill Clinton’s accusers as “floozies” and “stalkers.” These words were used by others in the Clinton effort to defend Bill Clinton, not by Hillary Clinton.