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Will Bill Clinton Be an Issue In 2016? [Updated]

As so often happens these days, it was Rand Paul who first raised the subject. Or, rather, his wife did. Senator Paul was a guest on Meet the Press when host David Gregory asked him to comment on an interview in Vogue in which Kelley Paul said, “Bill Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky should complicate his return to the White House, even as first spouse. I would say his behavior was predatory, offensive to women.” Paul responded mildly to Gregory, saying that the Lewinsky affair would impact how Bill Clinton is judged by history, while also noting that “with regard to the Clintons, …sometimes it’s hard to separate one from the other.”

Rand Paul returned to the theme a week or two later, saying that Democrats shouldn’t be advocating for women’s rights while using Bill Clinton to raise money. A salient point, since Clinton–Bill, not Hillary–is the Democrats’ most effective fundraiser.

Some have criticized Paul’s attacks on Bill Clinton, and others, including Mitt Romney, have argued that the former president should not be an issue in the 2016 campaign, assuming that his wife is a candidate. At the same time, others have joined Paul in questioning whether Bill Clinton’s many transgressions should disappear down the memory hole. Kathleen Willey, one of Bill Clinton’s victims, not only has spoken up, but has linked Bill’s harassment of her to his wife’s campaign:

“Hillary Clinton is the war on women, and that’s what needs to be exposed here,” Willey said Sunday night on Aaron Klein’s WABC Radio show.

“The point is what this woman is capable of doing to other women while she’s running a campaign basically on women’s issues. It just doesn’t make any sense. She singlehandedly orchestrated every one of the investigations of all these women [who accused her husband of sexual crimes].”

Glenn Loury, too, wondered why Bill Clinton gets a free pass:

Glenn Loury asks: How does Bill Clinton “get to go around and be an honorable defender of the Democratic Party line, which is a pro-woman line, when he took advantage of an intern in his office? And, you know, I’m not a pro-impeach-Bill-Clinton guy and whatnot, but I kind of find it hard to see that Rand Paul doesn’t have a point there, okay? How is it that the press and everybody else can just forget about the exploitation of women when they’re actually exploited and yet are prepared to level their howitzers of criticism on any Republican who might say something that could be construed as anti-woman, who hasn’t been messing around with the interns under his charge?”

It’s been a long time since most of us have thought about Clinton’s “bimbo eruptions,” but the names bring back the memories: Gennifer Flowers, Kathleen Willey, Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones. And, of course, Monica Lewinsky. But Monica isn’t the worst; Willey accused Clinton of an actual, physical assault, and Broaddrick asserted a credible claim of rape. Clinton paid Jones a lot of money to settle her sexual harassment case, committed perjury in the course of that lawsuit, paid a fine and lost his law license. The facts are really quite a bit worse than many people seem to realize.

But will any of this be fair game in 2016? Normally, of course, a political candidate’s spouse is more or less off limits. But it would be absurd to think of Bill Clinton as merely a First Husband. Here are some reasons why, in my view, Bill Clinton is likely to emerge as a political issue in 2016:

1) It is, as Rand Paul said, often hard to tell where one Clinton ends and the other begins. Remember in 1992 when Bill offered Hillary up as a potential co-president, suggesting that if we voted for him, we would get “two for the price of one?” Moreover, Bill is obviously the dominant member of the couple. He is the pre-eminent political genius of his generation, while no one would ever have heard of Hillary if she hadn’t married Bill. It would be foolish to imagine that Hillary could be president, without wondering what influence the far more able and experienced Bill would be wielding behind the scenes.

2) Hillary’s appeal as a candidate will consist largely of nostalgia for Bill’s two terms in office. A key issue in 2016–probably the key issue–will be which candidate has the best ideas to get the economy moving again. Is it conceivable that Hillary can refrain from harkening back to Bill’s tenure in the 1990s, and implying that we should elect her to bring back those good times? No. Apart from being the first woman president, that is the only plausible reason for electing her.

3) Bill Clinton is incapable of staying on the sidelines. He is the Democrats’ most popular figure, and Hillary’s best weapon. He will be a leading figure in her campaign. Is it possible for Bill to be front and center as a fundraiser and an advocate, running interference for his wife and vouching for her competence, while at the same time remaining shielded from any scrutiny? I don’t think so.

4) Hillary cannot be entirely divorced from Bill’s history. On the contrary, she was at a minimum an enabler, and she may have been involved in planning attacks on women like Kathleen Willey and Juanita Broaddrick. The issue here is not one of Bill Clinton having affairs; that would no doubt be a much longer list in which no one (probably including Hillary) has much interest. Rather, as noted, in Broaddrick’s case in particular, the allegation involved a felony which, if successfully prosecuted, would result in a long jail term.

5) There is every reason to expect the Democrats to reprise their “war on women” theme in 2016. Glenn Loury and Rand Paul aren’t the only ones who will think that if Hillary whistles that tune, she is the world’s biggest hypocrite. That is a judgment on Hillary, not Bill.

And finally: in a presidential election, pretty much everything can be relevant. If Mitt Romney putting a dog on the roof of his car can become a campaign issue, so can Hillary Clinton’s acquiescence in Bill’s string of alleged sexual assaults.

Bill Clinton’s past is not an issue that the Republican nominee will talk about, nor should he (or she). And the press will, of course, try to suppress any reference to the sordid aspects of the Clintons’ history, while at the same time talking up Bill Clinton’s presumed successes as president. But that suppression can succeed only up to a point. If Hillary Clinton thinks the ghosts of Kathleen Willey et al. have been put permanently to rest, she is mistaken.

UPDATE: Byron York addresses a different, but related, question, and comes to a similar conclusion: Why Hillary Clinton’s past is fair game in presidential race.

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