One month ago, the conservative radio host Aaron Klein aired a worldwide exclusive. Not even the New York Times could get what Klein was about to offer — an interview with Juanita Broaddrick, the former Arkansas nursing home administrator who claimed to have been raped by a young Gov. Bill Clinton. Klein, who'd been in college when Broaddrick first told the story, asked her to retell it in detail. He listened as Broaddrick described Hillary Clinton allegedly thanking her for "everything" she did, which seemed, to Broaddrick, like a request to keep quiet. Then he played a clip of Hillary Clinton telling supporters that rape victims had "the right to be heard," and "the right to be believed."
"She's sitting there and focusing part of her campaign on standing up for women," said Klein. "Is Hillary a woman who stands up for other women in circumstances like this?"
"Oh, no, she's not," said Broaddrick.
"If you had a few minutes alone with Hillary Clinton, is there anything you would say to her?" asked Klein.
"Just, shame on you, Hillary," said Broaddrick. "It’s time to be truthful... I hope that some day these people that are so evil are brought to justice."
Ten days later, a woman at a Clinton town hall in New Hampshire asked her if Broaddrick and other women who'd accused her husband of rape should be "believed." Hillary Clinton responded with "Well, I would say that everyone should be believed at first until they are disbelieved based on evidence." Video of that rocketed around conservative websites, from Breitbart to National Review, where Broaddrick, Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey have long been believed.
This week, when Donald Trump resurrected the sex scandals that plagued Bill Clinton's presidency, he hit on the growing conservative desire to portray the Democratic front-runner as the sort of person feminists should run screaming from. Some of the same outlets that deride the idea of a "rape culture" on campus, or of affirmative consent laws, ask progressives if they really trust Hillary Clinton to enforce them. The stories of women like Broaddrick and Willey had consumed countless hours of news coverage and legal probing before being dismissed. The rules had changed since then. In a world where Monica Lewinsky was giving TED talks about "public shaming," was Hillary Clinton still a champion for women?
"The irony of the situation is that the old Clintonian defense, 'everybody lies about sex,' doesn't fly in a world in which Hillary has declared that nobody lies about sexual assault," said Ben Shapiro, senior editor-at-large at Breitbart News. "The issue isn't prudery any longer — it's the leftist insistence that rapists lurk behind every corner, including on college campuses dominated by leftists. If that's true, Bill can't hide behind his old 'Frat Boy Bill' persona."
In these slow, intra-holiday news doldrums, Trump's attacks have largely been covered as his way to drag Bill Clinton himself into the race. But that's not how conservatives see it. To Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser who left his camp this year but cheers the candidate on from the bleachers, Trump has embraced the narrative that Hillary Clinton herself is an enabler of abuse. That's the thesis of "The Clintons' War on Women," Stone's new book, in which he claims to have identified 24 women exploited by Bill Clinton as the former first lady covered for him. In 2008, he named an anti-Clinton group Citizens United Not Timid just to get its otherwise unprintable acronym into print. In 2015, Stone had become a defender of women.
"It’s not about Bill," says Stone. "Hillary hired the private detectives. Hillary went after these women and their reputations. Will young women be offended by the way Hillary has abused and bullied her husband's victims? If I were a young woman voter, I'd be offended. I don't see why she's leading with her chin on this."
Feminists see that argument as a remarkable exercise in bad faith. Breitbart, for example, makes the critique while arguing that feminists have engaged in dangerous myth-making about the threat of rape. In October, Breitbart's technology editor Milo Yiannopoulos chronicled how the "looney feminist left" treated him when he showed up at a "slut walk" with a sign reading "'Rape culture' and Harry Potter: Both Fantasy." Jessica Valenti, a feminist author and columnist who has argued that flamboyant sexism or anti-feminism will only help Hillary Clinton, thinks that the intentions of the new attack are just too transparent to work.
"This is going to backfire on conservatives, [who have] spent a tremendous amount of time and energy arguing that rape culture doesn't exist and that women fighting sexual assault on campus are just PC whiners," said Valenti. "Young women who care about battling sexual assault and rape culture are smart enough to know when their issues are being co-opted. Republicans consistently underestimate how savvy younger women are, so this just feels like more of the same."
To conservatives, the key word is "young." A 21-year old woman who might be entering the work force after getting her degree was just three years old when Bill Clinton was impeached. Millions of women, potentially, are being re-introduced to Hillary Clinton without any usable memory of the scandal years.
That suggests an opening for anyone who wants to question her credibility on sexual harassment or rape. Clinton's criticism of her husband's accusers, and her pre-1992 campaign to get sworn statements from them was old news for some Clinton defenders. It would be new to plenty of 2016 voters. So would Hillary Clinton's legal defense of an alleged child rapist, which the Washington Free Beacon looked into in 2014. Newsday had looked into the story in 2008, but reporter Alana Goodman found audio of Clinton laughing about the case,
"Every time she opens her mouth about women, you can honestly say 'No, you weren’t — you were defending a rapist,'" said Michael Goldfarb, the co-founder of the Free Beacon who's moved on to consulting work. "It used to be that the Clinton people would go into the weeds on how she’d been running the war room. Now the position is these woman were discredited before she did anything. I don’t know if anyone believes that’s true. The constant is that every woman needs to be believed — up until she makes an allegation against Bill Clinton."
The Free Beacon's story made some waves in 2014, but until this week no Republican politicians seemed interested in revisiting the sex scandals. Carly Fiorina, whose fading presidential campaign has challenged Hillary Clinton's ability to speak for women, has only mentioned the "bimbo eruptions" of the 1990s in a joke. Brent Bozell, the president of the conservative Media Research Center, never shies from mentioning the scandals. He's also unconvinced that Broaddrick or Lewinsky can matter in 2016.
"Those people aren’t really going to have an impact," said Bozell. "They’re barking at the moon. They weren’t there at the governor's mansion when Hillary was running interference."
Trump, the thrice-married mogul who once defended Bill Clinton's "private life," offered the best hope of changing this dynamic. "By and large, Republicans were afraid of their own shadows in the 1990s," said Bozell. "They continue to be, with things like Benghazi. If history’s a guide, she won’t be hurt by this. On the other hand, if there’s a serious conversation about the role Hillary played in running interference for Bill, that could change how this is covered. Hillary has a lot to fear from Donald Trump, because he won't hold back."