The problem with Bill Clinton

Story highlights

  • Tim Stanley: In his campaign against Hillary Clinton, Trump has brought up Bill Clinton's infidelity. It may be unkind, but it's fair
  • He says Democrats show double standard on sexism. Bill Clinton may become a bigger electoral factor than they think

Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain's Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Like a broken clock, Donald Trump is occasionally right. Who knew it would be about the subject of gender politics? Trump looks and sounds like a cave man in a business suit. But he's helped illustrate a Democratic double-standard on sexism.

Timothy Stanley
This latest row started when Trump said Hillary Clinton had been "schlonged" by Barack Obama in 2008 -- schlong is a Yiddish word meaning penis. Clinton replied using a French word, saying that Trump had a "penchant for sexism." Trump then charged the Clintons with sexism in a back and forth that culminated with his assertion to CNN's Chris Cuomo that Bill is "one of the great woman abusers."
Pundits of left and right were suddenly divided. Was Trump articulating conservative bigotry towards successful women?
Or is Bill Clinton fair game?
He is and he isn't. On the one hand, Hillary Clinton deserves to be able to pursue the White House in her own right. True, she is who is she is because of her husband -- their marriage leant her stature. But Bill is also who he is because of Hillary -- he would never have made it to the presidency without her political genius.
Since then, Mrs. Clinton has served as a senator and secretary of state. There is something unkind about making her relive decades-old humiliations forced on her by spousal infidelity.
On the other hand, if the DNC insists on stitching the Democratic nomination up for Hillary Clinton, this sort of thing is bound to happen. The price of living in the past is that you have to live with your mistakes. Memories of the Clinton administration do recall sound economic management. But they also recall infidelity and, as a result, a much-reduced presidency.
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It's often forgotten that one reason George W. Bush beat Al Gore in 2000, despite the country's prosperity, was that people were tired of an administration that had about as much class as one of those paternity test episodes of Maury Povich. Just as Jeb Bush was asked questions about his brother's record in office, it's sadly predictable that Hillary will be asked about her husband's sexual shenanigans in the Oval Office.
It's a subject that Democrats seem strangely reluctant to acknowledge. Shamefully so. Republican hypocrisy on sex tends to involve self-professed Christians being caught fooling around with the parishioners. Democrats' hypocrisy on sex means proclaiming feminism only to then display a porcine attitude towards women.
Bill Clinton settled a long-running sexual harassment case with Paula Jones for $850,000, admitted to a sexual relationship with Gennifer Flowers and had an affair with intern Monica Lewinsky.
Some other women have accused the former president of harassment, which is denied by the Clintons but doubly embarrassing in light of Hillary's recent insistence that victims of sexual assault "have the right to be believed."
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Because Bill Clinton used his presidential authority to defend abortion rights, accusations made against him were ignored or dismissed by supporters. The feminist writer Anne Roiphe said at the time: "It will be a great pity if the Democratic Party is damaged by this. ... I just wanted to close my eyes, and wished it would go away."
Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said: "We're trying to think of the bigger picture, think about what's best for women." This is classic left-wing instrumentalism -- being coldly, even ruthlessly pragmatic in pursuit of idealistic ends, ignoring the effects upon the individuals involved.
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It's an attitude at variance with contemporary morals. Old school feminists often had to suffer the indignities of working alongside chauvinist pigs to get things done. Not so anymore. Increasingly, feminism is judged as much on how we treat each other on a day-to-day basis as it is on government policy -- so there is no hiding place for the politician who says one thing and then does another. That makes perfect sense.
We'd have no tolerance for someone who preached civil rights from the pulpit but was condescending to black people in private. Likewise, many modern feminists would be astonished at the idea that a woman should have to "tolerate" her partner's bad behavior as part of a political contract. In 1992, during the Gennifer Flowers frenzy, Hillary Clinton joked that she wasn't "some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette." Three decades later, that's exactly what she does look like to many people.
How will this affect the presidential race? Trump's remarks certainly won't do him any damage in the primaries. Contrary to liberal myth, there are such things as Republican women and they tend to be just as conservative as Republican men.
In the general election, however, many more moderate women may find it unappealing that The Donald chooses to personalize politics by going after Bill Clinton and see his remarks as underscoring conservative hostility towards feminists trying to break the glass ceiling.
But don't be too surprised if Bill Clinton becomes a bigger electoral issue than once expected. We live in an era haunted by ghosts of old scandals: Historic abuse cases are bringing down powerful men all the time. There is an appetite for correcting the sins of the past. Bill Clinton may find himself being horribly reminded of his ill-spent youth.