Donald Trump’s strategy to turn the 2016 election into a rehash of the Clinton scandals and pseudo-scandals of the 1990s is a mystifying one, considering how that turned out for Republicans the last time.
Then again, this is Trump, so the normal laws of politics should not be assumed to apply.
“Look, he’s done a number of things I have wondered about, almost all of which have worked,” said Newt Gingrich, who led the charge to impeach President Bill Clinton — and lost his House speakership when voters punished Republicans for it in the 1998 midterm election. “It’s something I might not have done, but he operates on such a different model that I’d be very cautious about rendering judgment.”
The particulars of the controversies that Trump is dredging up may be beside the point. They are aimed at dominating the nano-cycles of today’s news, reinforcing the doubts about Hillary Clinton’s character that have already taken root and throwing the candidate and her team off their game.
“Part of it is, he’s just trying to throw stuff in the air and keep her rattled,” Gingrich said.
Bill Clinton’s two terms in office were a controversy-fueled era, with seven separate independent-counsel investigations of the administration, as well as constant inquisitions by congressional committees and watchdog groups.
Whitewater. Filegate. Travelgate. Chinagate. Pardongate. Troopergate. One after another they tumbled by, the odor lingering long after the details became a blur. In the darker corners of the Internet and on talk-radio call-in shows, the first couple were accused of everything from drug-running to murder.
Ultimately, Republicans succeeded in putting a permanent black mark on Bill Clinton’s legacy, making him only the second president in U.S. history to be impeached by the House.
But they fell short of getting a majority in the GOP-controlled Senate, much less the two-thirds it would have taken to convict him and throw him out of office.
Politically, the 42nd president won.
“The Clinton White House turned the attacks back against the attackers by constantly and consistently making the point that while the Republicans were focused on personal attacks for partisan gain, the president was focused on the American people,” said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, who was part of the damage-control operation.
As Clinton left office, his Gallup-poll job approval was 66 percent, which was the highest final number the survey had recorded for any chief executive since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Ironically enough, the public’s admiration for Clinton’s performance reached its zenith of 73 percent in December 1998 — the very week the House passed two articles of impeachment against him alleging perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the biggest of the scandals, Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Hillary Clinton, who had the dubious distinction of being the only first lady in history to have to testify before a grand jury, also emerged from those White House years with high regard by the public, which helped launch her on her own political career with a bid for the U.S. Senate.
Trump is already raising a steady drumbeat of allegations that the former president was a sexual predator and that his wife was an enabler.
Trump has also revived one of the most thoroughly discredited conspiracy theories of the era, which is that the suicide of Clinton White House aide Vincent W. Foster Jr. was actually murder. Five separate investigations came to the same conclusion: Foster killed himself.
In a news conference Thursday, Trump dialed back his earlier comments and said Foster’s death should not be a campaign issue.
On Wednesday, Politico was mistakenly sent an email indicating that Trump’s next target may be the Whitewater controversy, which involved a failed real estate venture in the 1970s and 1980s that the Clintons had invested in. Trump adviser Michael Caputo had asked the Republican National Committee to “work up” information on Whitewater to be used “for the afternoon talking points process.”
A response by campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks inadvertently ended up in the email inbox of Politico reporter Marc Caputo.
Bill and Hillary Clinton also make frequent references to the 1990s, sidestepping its darker side and casting it in a rose-colored light of prosperity.
“We were all rising together,” Bill Clinton said at a recent appearance in Pittsburgh. “We weren’t on each other’s throats, because we were all rising together.”
Gingrich argued that the robust economy was one of the factors that saved Clinton — a point that Gingrich’s daughters made with the then-speaker as they tried to dissuade him from pursuing Clinton’s impeachment full-bore.
“There’s nothing that massive employment growth doesn’t help you with,” Gingrich said. “My daughters explained that to me in 1998: ‘We don’t want to do anything that messes up our 401(k)s. Don’t pick a fight. This economy is really good.’ ”
But elections, as Bill Clinton rarely misses an opportunity to say, are about the future. Can Trump really make voters care about things that happened in another century?
“As a general proposition, the back-to-the-’90s theme has not been an especially effective play in the past, and, given that it is now so far in the past, one has to consider that it will be even of less relevance today,” Lehane said. “That said, the successful theory of the Trump campaign to date has been to win the news cycle — even the news cycles within news cycles.”
David Bossie, who was chief investigator for the House committee that led many of the Clinton-era probes, called Trump’s strategy “sheer brilliance. If I am Hillary and Bill Clinton, I would expect a plateful of it.”
Bossie contended that voters under the age of 35 are only vaguely aware of the seamier side of the Clintons’ previous tenure in the White House.
“One of the reasons these young people 18 to 35 are with Bernie Sanders is they don’t believe her. They don’t trust her,” he said. “Using these issues to educate the uneducated, [Trump] can, one, win them over for himself, or, two, make them stay home — that’s called winning.”