Let’s get these two things out the way: First, the overriding and unfortunate lesson of recent American politics is that if presidential candidates and presidents accused of sexual misconduct just stay the course, they’ll either get elected or survive in office. There’s a Democrat named Clinton and a Republican named Trump who bear that out.
Second, it’s also true that the country is changing; the way powerful men are able to treat women has changed, irrevocably. You can feel it happening over the past weeks as women come forward with stories of the way men treated them, from Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore to Al Franken and George H.W. Bush.
Now, it is also true that it can be uncomfortable, to say the least, to apply the standards of today to the situations of yesterday.
Uncomfortable is an understatement for Democrats who want to encourage women but also defend the icon of their recent, tortured past.
So it is perhaps inevitable to see Democrats who praise and laud the Clinton administration say that Bill Clinton should probably have resigned the presidency when he was impeached for lying and narrowly escaped being removed from office during a dramatic trial in the Senate.
New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand told The New York Times that if we’re applying today’s standards, Clinton probably should have resigned during the Ken Starr and Monica Lewinsky saga. One can’t imagine Gillibrand would’ve said what she did had Clinton won last November.
(Gillibrand, for what it’s worth, seems likely to throw her own hat in the ring to succeed Trump after Hillary Clinton’s failure to also become the nation’s first female president.)
Here’s how the Times, which added later that her office wanted to clarify her response, wrote it:
Asked directly if she believed Mr. Clinton should have stepped down at the time, Ms. Gillibrand took a long pause and said, “Yes, I think that is the appropriate response.”
But she also appeared to signal that what is currently considered a fireable offense may have been more often overlooked during the Clinton era.
“Things have changed today, and I think under those circumstances there should be a very different reaction,” Ms. Gillibrand said. “And I think in light of this conversation, we should have a very different conversation about President Trump, and a very different conversation about allegations against him.”
Gillibrand’s comment drew a swift and pointed response from the Clinton orbit in the form of Hillary Clinton’s pugnacious former spokesman, Philippe Reines, who tweeted:
“Ken Starr spent $70 million on a consensual blowjob. Senate voted to keep POTUS WJC. But not enough for you @SenGillibrand? Over 20 yrs you took the Clintons’ endorsements, money, and seat. Hypocrite. Interesting strategy for 2020 primaries. Best of luck.”
Clinton power must be waning for Gillibrand (who sits in the Senate seat once occupied by Hillary Clinton!) to make her comment. Their power hasn’t waned entirely, however, since she sought to clarify the response.
But the tension between Bill’s actions in the ‘90s and earlier, and what the image Democrats want to cultivate with women – that’s not going anywhere. It will be interesting to see how the country’s evolving tolerance for men behaving badly reflects for Democrats on their two-term President. That he is today among the most respected former presidents is an important thing for the party. He’s a draw on the election trail and a big event at conventions. He was Barack Obama’s “Secretary of Explaining Stuff” in 2012.
Trump tried to make Bill Clinton’s past an issue during the campaign. He even brought a number of Bill Clinton’s accusers into the debate hall when he squared off against Hillary Clinton in an October 9, 2016, presidential debate. That move was intended to divert attention from the growing accusations against Trump.
The allegations against Clinton, beyond his consensual Oval Office relationship with Lewinsky, included the serious accusation of rape by Juanita Broaddrick, sexual harassment of Paula Jones for which Clinton ultimately settled to the tune of $850,000, and the allegation of groping by Kathleen Willey.
It is impossible to argue that Clinton-era baggage, fair or not, didn’t hurt Hillary Clinton’s trustworthiness with the squishy middle of American politics where elections are won and lost.
But to say that Bill Clinton should have resigned also ignores how things were treated back then.
Take, very simply, his approval rating as tracked methodically by Gallup. He reached his high water mark of 73% approval in December 19-20 of 1998.
What happened on December 19 of 1998, you ask? That’s the day the articles of impeachment were introduced against him in the House of Representatives.
Despite the Starr Report, which was released just before the 1998 midterm elections, Democrats held Republicans at bay that November.
The effort to drive Clinton from office actually backfired on Republicans at the time. Most Americans – 57 percent! – approved of the Senate’s decision to keep him in office.
If he had resigned when he was under siege by House Republicans, you could argue, perhaps, that it would have put Al Gore into a stronger position as an incumbent President heading into 2000. But that ignores the fact that Clinton’s popularity at the end of his term did not flag. He was still hovering around 60% approval as Al Gore was heading to a split decision in 2000 against George W. Bush.
There’s probably a stronger argument that if Bill Clinton had resigned in disgrace, is it also possible that Hillary Clinton would not have won her Senate seat in New York with more than 55% of the vote.
All of these are hypotheticals that are fun to argue, but ultimately meaningless. The more immediate question is whether Democrats, as they count more and more on women voters, find their relationship with Bill Clinton to become more complicated.