Why Monica Lewinsky Shouldn't Be a GOP Talking Point

Clinton-bashing makes the Republican Party look desperate and out of control.

 Former White House intern Monica Lewinsky (R) leaves the US District Courthouse in Washington, DC 06 August after her first day of testimony before Kenneth Starr's grand jury. (National Journal)

Bill Clinton uses a car-racing metaphor to explain the difference between rash and calm decision-making in politics. "The great drivers, when the cars get close, the turns get hairy, they calm down, and they see everything, and they act," he says. "The ones who are fearful and can't concentrate and can't calm down, run into the wall."

Republican leaders should pay attention, because on the issue of whether Clinton's sex life is relevant 14 years after he left office, they're once again careening toward a wall.

Sen. Rand Paul dredged up Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky and his subsequent impeachment, telling an interviewer last month that Democrats don't have the moral high ground on women's issues because the former president's "predatory" behavior toward the White House intern.

"One of the workplace laws and rules that I think are good is that bosses shouldn't prey on young interns in their office. And I think the media seems to have given President Clinton a pass on this," the Kentucky Republican said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Though Paul said that Hillary Clinton shouldn't be judged for her husband's behavior, he suggested the Lewinsky affair would be a factor if she sought the presidency in two years. "Sometimes it's hard to separate one from the other," Paul said of the Clintons.

On the same show, 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney said Sunday that Clinton had "breached his responsibility" and "embarrassed" the nation. But he added, "I don't think Bill Clinton is relevant as Hillary Clinton if she decides to run for office."

What's going on here? For Paul, it's clearly a strategy to gain a head start on the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. Michael Tomasky of the Daily Beast notes that the quasi-libertarian takes positions that are not always in tune with the GOP's conservative base, such as a relatively open mind on same-sex marriage. Criticizing Clinton (and disingenuously accusing the media of giving the former president "a pass") is red meat to social conservatives.

Furthermore, nothing steels a candidate for a big fight better than a big fight, and Clinton is an insanely visible target. "The more Paul talks about the Clintons, the more he sets up the mental picture in the brains of Republican primary voters of him being the logical guy to step into the ring with them," Tomasky wrote. "After all, they'll think, he's sure not afraid of them!"

I'll add one more reason. Focusing voters on the past may be a subtle way to argue that Hillary Clinton is not about the future.

Here's the problem: While Clinton bashing may be a good pre-primary tactic, it's a lousy politics for the Republican Party in general. We know that because Clinton registered the highest approval ratings of his presidency during the period between the January 1998 exposure of his affair and February 1999, when the Senate voted to acquit him.

In July 2012, Clinton's approval rating registered at 66 percent, higher than any time since he left office. Two-thirds of women gave him high marks, as did 44 percent of Republicans.

Elections are about the future. The GOP is harping on the past. Romney seem to acknowledge the problem when he said Sunday, "I don't think Bill Clinton is as relevant as Hillary Clinton if she decides to run for president." He added, "She has her own record and her own vision."

What exactly is the GOP vision beyond attacking President Obama and two Clintons? That's what brought to mind the Clinton car-racing metaphor, which I've heard him deploy over the years in different contexts. Lacking a fresh, forward-looking agenda, Republicans should worry that attacks on Bill Clinton's character could backfire again, making them appear to be acting out of fear, unable to concentrate or calm down.

The Clinton quote at the top of this column came from an October 2009 campaign speech for an embattled Democratic candidate, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, when the ex-president was begging voters to carefully consider their options before turning against the incumbent.

He used a second metaphor in the speech: "The great quarterbacks," Clinton said, "are the ones that keep looking at the field, even when these 300-pound behemoths are about to crush them, right. They are, they're calm, and they complete the pass. That's what voting is for people in trouble this year. You cannot let people let their fears, their frustrations, their discouragement, keep them from the polls."

New Jersey didn't listen. A few days later, Corzine was defeated by Republican Chris Christie, who went on to win re-election in a 2013 campaign rife with poor decision-making. Christie's presidential dreams are now as stalled as a race car on the George Washington Bridge. When will these guys learn?

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