Saturday, February 24, 2018
Opinion

Enough of this Monica chitchat, Bill and Hillary Clinton are still married

We're all very busy, so here's a time-saver: Let's all agree to not talk about Monica Lewinsky for at least two years. In fact, let's not discuss any of the "events" in the Clinton marriage. You should embrace this view whether you think Hillary Clinton should be president or not.

First, we'll start with the Republicans who are revisiting these issues or flirting with them. Talking about Bill Clinton's personal relationships, or the scandals of the Clinton years, is likely only to improve Hillary Clinton's standing with the public.

In the 1990s, Hillary Clinton's approval rating went up when her husband's affair with an intern was on the front pages. Politicians who bring up these issues risk reanimating these feelings of sympathy. It also diminishes you in the process.

Mostly, though, going down this road conveys the feeling that Republicans are obsessed. The verdict the country rendered during the Clinton impeachment trial was that the obsession had gotten in the way of reason. In the elections of 1998, which Republicans tried to make a referendum on Clinton's morality, Democrats lost no ground in the Senate and picked up five seats in the House — a historic aberration.

You can try to convince people that Bill Clinton's behavior is important, but while you're doing that you're not talking about whatever programs you support that are actually going to improve people's lives. During the 1990s, voters decided that they preferred peace and prosperity to moralizing. Why then, when there is anemic prosperity and a much more dangerous world, would people be interested in pawing over that old ground?

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who hopes to run for president, has talked the most about Bill Clinton as a "sexual predator." Perhaps it's a bid to show evangelicals that he shares their moral code. But throwing "red meat" to evangelical voters feels awfully 1996 — a conventional and tiny approach to coalition building when held up against Paul's larger sweeping promises of creating a coalition that attracts millennials, conservatives and libertarians.

If you are a Republican and you are asked about these issues, you should follow the example of Mitt Romney. On Meet the Press he said if Hillary Clinton ran for office, she should be judged on her career and not on her husband's past personal failings.

The post-election party autopsy that wrestled with creating a modern Republican party that spoke to women and minorities claimed that the GOP was too old and backward-looking. It quoted from focus groups in which former Republicans described the party as "scary," "narrow minded," "out of touch" and the party of "stuffy, old men." Reprising the anti-Clinton talking points of the 1990s will not help undo those impressions.

If you are in Hillary Clinton's camp, the reasons to not talk about Monica Lewinsky are obvious. It diminishes Hillary by defining her simply as a spouse. But even engaging in a debate about whether this is a worthy topic of conversation is a trap for Hillary fans. Every second you spend dismissing it implicitly supports the idea that it is a worthy topic in evaluating her qualifications for the presidency. That keeps the issue alive, which at the very least creates a fog through which it's harder to make the new Clinton pitch if she decides to run.

Hillary Clinton was a senator, ran a rocky but nearly successful presidential campaign, and served as secretary of state. There are at least 10 questions worth analyzing from these years that would actually bear on what kind of a president she would be. That's enough to keep us all busy.

John Dickerson is Slate.com's chief political correspondent.

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