It struck me in talking to a conservative journalist who wrote extensively on the Bill Clinton presidency that Republicans are laboring under the misconception that the parade of scandals ever damaged either Clinton. Conservatives talked and wrote endlessly about everything from Gennifer Flowers to Troopergate to Whitewater to Hillary’s stock market “prowess.” The Clintons arguably jump-started conservative talk radio. But none of the Clintons’ antics and the attacks they generated much swayed the general public. Yes, Hillary’s popularity dipped a bit in the first term, but she and her husband were flying high again in 1996 and she never looked back. You recall presidential candidate Bob Dole’s lament, “Where’s the outrage?” There was not much. (He lost trying to get indifferent Americans to be indignant.)
It is hard then for Republican strategists and pundits to make the case now that reminding the public two decades later of events that didn’t hobble Hillary Clinton then will have much of an effect now. (It sure didn’t harm Bill, who was elected twice, beat impeachment, used Republican overzealousness against them in the 1998 election and now is the most beloved Democrat in the country).
Throughout her tenure as first lady Hillary Clinton’s approval fluctuated between 54 and 80 percent. When was she most popular? In the aftermath of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Thanks very much for bringing it up, Sen. Paul! At the time Stephen Hess of Brookings remarked, “This is especially fascinating because her current popularity is based on her being the wronged woman, and that is a very non-feminist place to be.”
Hillary was most unpopular when she runs for office, as we saw in 2008. This isn’t hard to understand. She lacks her husband’s easy charm. In the heat of the race, she resorted to tall tales. (Remember when she claimed she landed in Bosnia “under sniper fire”?!). She proved to be a really poor manager of her own campaign, just like she had proved on Hillarycare and would later prove at the State Department. Her caution and attachment to the status quo doesn’t mesh with a public mood of discontentment with Washington, D.C.
Conservatives now forget, but it was maddening to them in the 1990’s that the Clintons did not seem to pay a price for their shenanigans. That’s what gave rise to the frequent comparison to “The Great Gatsby.” (Joe Klein: “They are the Tom and Daisy Buchanan of the Baby Boom Political Elite. The Buchanans, you may recall, were F. Scott Fitzgerald’s brilliant crystallization of flapper fecklessness in ‘The Great Gatsby.’ They were ‘careless’ people. They smashed up lives and didn’t notice.”)
None of the Clinton presidency, fresh in voters’ minds, weighed Hillary Clinton down in her Senate race or her re-election race. (Al Gore might have paid a price, but she rode the wave of first lady popularity to victory.) It’s illogical to assume that going back to events before her Senate run would move voters who don’t recall or never knew about Whitewater or the White House travel office. (Keep in mind there are a ton of details in these episodes which are never going to be Twitter-sized.) If the Republicans are going to beat her they’re going to have to take on the recent Hillary Clinton record (an enticing environment) and Hillary Clinton the presidential candidate. And they of course are going to run against a third term of President Obama, which may be the most effective tactic of all.
Every party creates its own myths. (Ronald Reagan was elected because he was so conservative, rightwingers now claim — forgetting his inclusive, optimistic message and the backlash against Jimmy Carter.) But when those myths become an impediment to winning elections and governing effectively, it’s time to put them aside.