Could Bill Clinton Get Elected Today With All Those Allegations?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Caitlin Flanagan, an Atlantic contributing editor, wrote a piece for the The Washington Post called “Why we trust Donald Trump’s accusers but didn’t believe Bill Clinton’s.” She calls Trump “crass, bullying—and no dummy. Yes, he had all but invited women to come forward and accuse him. But by pairing his accusers with Bill Clinton’s, he made us confront a potent reality: A man facing the allegations Clinton did might not be electable today.” As an example of how the political culture has changed since the ’90s, namely with regard to unwanted sexual advances, Flanagan notes:

Gloria Steinem’s defense of Clinton is the most difficult to imagine taking place today. In 1998, she wrote in the New York Times that he had not assaulted [Kathleen] Willey or [Paula] Jones. Rather, she wrote, the fact that he had not raped either of them after they pushed him away was evidence that he “took ‘no’ for an answer.” To combine the language of Trump (speaking to Billy Bush) with the philosophy of Steinem: It is okay for a man to move on a woman “like a bitch,” so long as he doesn’t force the sex act on her if she fights back.

In Steinem’s words:

[I]f the allegations [from Willey that Clinton groped her without consent] are true, the President is not guilty of sexual harassment. He is accused of having made a gross, dumb and reckless pass at a supporter during a low point in her life. She pushed him away, she said, and it never happened again. In other words, President Clinton took “no” for an answer.

In her original story, Paula Jones essentially said the same thing. She went to then-Governor Clinton’s hotel room, where she said he asked her to perform oral sex and even dropped his trousers. She refused, and even she claims that he said something like, “Well, I don’t want to make you do anything you don’t want to do.”

Many Atlantic readers in the discussion group TAD tackled the question posed by Flanagan—whether Bill Clinton’s behavior would still get him elected today. (Contribute your own thoughts via Here’s Chris, who seems to think Bill would still endure:

Flanagan’s article mentions that it was Bill Clinton’s liberal feminist bonafides that helped him get cover from the likes of Gloria Steinem, and I think that still carries weight to this day with a fair number of people. I also think a lot of the gap is generational. It’s purely anecdotal, but I’ve hung around feminists, radical feminists, and people broadly involved with social justice issues long enough to know that sometimes there’s a sadly accurate stereotype of the feminist dude who uses the feminist cover to front his manipulative game (if not actual abuse). I’m cynical, but I think a lot of politics is about the tribal and it is about performing superiority, whether that’s philosophical or moral.

Another reader looks to Bill’s public demeanor:

I think part of the willingness to excuse or forgive President Clinton also comes from the fact that he seems like a generally nice human being. Trump does not appear this way. We can believe someone with an unappealing nature could assault women. We don’t want to believe that of a nice guy.

Another reader, Ruth, gets to a key difference—perhaps the crucial difference—between Bill and The Donald when it comes to the allegations of sexual assault against them: the Tape (which still dwarfs all the smaller tapes):

Trump’s accusers came forward AFTER a video had been released to the public of Trump bragging about almost the exact behavior the accusers describe.

The reputation and “general good standing” of the accused has a much higher importance in sexual assault cases than most other areas. Convincing people of sexual assault by a “trusted” figure is a high, high, high bar. I don’t know that this has changed that much. Donald Trump in particular’s credibility with women was in the toilet ALREADY when the accusers spoke out.

This next reader tries to understand why many of the allegations against Clinton didn’t get as much traction as the ones against Trump:

There is a long and well-established history of Republicans undertaking a carefully orchestrated smear campaign against the Clintons going back to Arkansas in the 1980s. The problem with believing or not believing any single accusation against either Bill or Hillary is that we have a huge and ever-expanding library of objectively false accusations against both of them. A taste of this nonsense is here and here.

When you have a whole cottage industry dedicated to making money by making a variety of untrue accusations against Bill and Hillary Clinton, it makes it much harder to take any individual accusation of wrongdoing very seriously. There is no doubt that Bill Clinton is a womanizer with serious problems of self-discipline. But there is a difference between a womanizer and a sexual predator.

Here’s Terri:

I always had the smoke/fire feeling about Bill Clinton. There is definitely something to the stories of him groping and taking advantage of his position. Lewinsky, while willing, showed that Bill had little self control when it came to accessible people in the workplace.

Were these women also being used as fodder by his political opposition? Yes. Might their stories sometimes have been enhanced for that purpose? Maybe, can’t know for certain. Is Clinton’s behavior toward women inappropriate at times? Yep.

Is that an important factor in assessing Hillary Clinton’s ability to serve as president? Not in this election. Bill is not running. Trump is. Caring about Bill in the WH as first spouse is a luxury we can’t afford in this election. I also don’t believe Hillary’s loyalty reflects badly on her.

And as for the Trump charge that Hillary Clinton “viciously attacked” the women who accused Bill of assault, The Washington Post gives that claim 3 out of 4 Pinocchios while PolitiFact says it’s “Mostly False.”

Here’s one more reader with a bellwether on the political culture today:

Fox News just ousted Roger Ailes. Sometimes things change for the better.

Update from a reader, Marian:

Could Bill Clinton get elected today? Yes, I think so. Maybe I’m the wrong person to address this question. I was raised in the South, and I’m therefore especially susceptible to the kind of charm he has exercised on women. One of his pickup lines (“You make my knees knock”) would probably work on me (or would have before I got married, anyway).  

But most important (and nobody else seems to have figured this out), most of the legal trouble he got into was the result, not of his faults, but of his virtues.  A Southern gentleman does not kiss and tell. Even under oath.

Trump, on the other hand, kisses and tells—and tells, and tells. He may even tell when he has not actually kissed. He has no concern for the reputation of the women in question, nor for the feelings of whichever woman he was married to at the time. Bill, on the other hand, is still married to Hillary, and he’s been pretty considerate of her feelings most of the time, except when actually committing infidelities.

I have political disagreements with him, especially about criminal justice and welfare grants, but at the time, he was still the better alternative. He probably still would be.