Here's How Monica Lewinsky Could Haunt Hillary Clinton's Campaign As More Than A One-Off Low Blow
Even before Hillary Clinton officially announced that she running for president in 2016, many wondered if the ghost of the Monica Lewinsky scandal would haunt her campaign. After Lewinsky wrote her incredibly well-received "comeback" story in Vanity Fair in 2014 and became an anti-bullying advocate, people wondered if even just having her name back in the news would stir up the ugliest memories of a Clinton White House and hurt the former secretary of state's campaign. However, while Clinton advocates dismissed the idea Bernie Sanders supporter Rosario Dawson made Lewinsky relevant to the election in a way that may actually resonate with voters.
On Saturday, the actress and feeler of the Bern cited Lewinsky at a rally for Sanders in Baltimore, just days before Maryland goes to the polls on April 26. During her introduction for the Vermont senator, Dawson said, "We are literally under attack for not just supporting the other candidate,” and then added:
Now, I’m with Monica Lewinsky with this. Bullying is bad. She has actually dedicated her life now to talking about that. And now as a campaign strategy, we are being bullied, and somehow that is okay, and not being talked about with the richness that it needs.
Clinton's campaign refused to directly address Dawson's remark while simultaneously attacking Sanders for it. Nick Merrill, a Clinton spokesman, told CNN he would "absolutely not" respond to the Lewinsky reference, but said, "You could ask the Sanders campaign why they encourage this vitriol in the vicinity of their candidate by staying silent."
To be fair to Sanders, he hardly condoned Dawson's remark. The Vermont senator told CNN's Jake Tapper on State of the Union that “Rosario is a great actress, and she’s doing a great job for us ... she’s been a passionate fighter to see that we increase the voter turnout, that we fight for racial, economic, environmental justice.”
At the same time, Sanders didn't criticize it, either. He sidestepped Dawson's Lewinsky reference, and by no means denounced it, but I'm not certain this is a case where he clearly needs to — nor one where Clinton can claim moral high ground and merely accuse Dawson/Sanders of dredging up the past. Bringing up Lewinsky is not inherently a low blow or a distraction, and I'm not sure the Clinton campaign will always be able to self-righteously dismiss it as they did in this instance.
For sure, it raised red flags when Donald Trump spoke of Bill Clinton's past on NBC's The Today Show, saying that "there certainly were a lot of abuse of women, you look at whether it's Monica Lewinsky or Paula Jones, or any of them" and that they'd be "fair game" for attacking Hillary. It's worth pointing out that there's a difference between Lewinsky's and Jones' cases: Jones did accuse Clinton of sexually harassing her (it was dismissed, and then Clinton settled while Jones appealed), while Lewinsky has always maintained that their affair was consensual. But more importantly, Bill, not Hillary, should have to answer for his sexual behavior.
That holds when it comes to accusations like the ones made by Rand Paul. "If they want to take position on women's rights, by all means do. But you can't do it and take it from a guy who was using his position of authority to take advantage of young women in the workplace," the Kentucky senator told CNN. Personally, I think his argument that Bill Clinton should be scrutinized and criticized for having a sexual relationship in which there was an especially massive power difference at play holds water. But that's Bill's problem to deal with, not Hillary's.
However, what Hillary Clinton may be quite legitimately asked about is whether she was complicit in throwing Lewinsky under the media bus back in 1998. Dawson's Lewinsky reference was incredibly brief and vague, but my interpretation is that this concern, the "bullying," was what she was calling out Hillary and Bill Clinton for, not his sexual infidelities. Dawson's remark feeds into a perception of the Clintons that is already out there — that they "bully" people who stand in their way. Lewinsky is an outspoken anti-bullying advocate, so the reference carries extra weight.
Clinton stood by her husband throughout the scandal and his impeachment. It goes without saying that there was an immense amount of pressure on her to do so. In 2014, the conservative Washington Free Beacon went through the papers of Diana Blair, a political science professor and Clinton's close friend who took careful notes of their relationship, and discovered that the then-First-Lady referred to Lewinsky as a "narcissistic loony toon.” In Blair's notes, it's recorded that Clinton told her “It was a lapse, but she says to [Bill Clinton's] credit he tried to break it off, tried to pull away, tried to manage someone who was clearly a ‘narcissistic loony toon.'"
When asked about the remark in 2014 during an interview with ABC News, Clinton said, “I am not going to comment on what I did or did not say back in the late '90s.” That's not exactly a denouncement or an apology. By the way, the idea that one should have to apologize to someone who had an affair with their spouse seems absolutely galling to me and something that no ordinary person should be expected to do. But you're also not an ordinary person if you're choosing to run for the highest office in the land — partially on the promise that you're the best candidate for women.
Here's what Lewinsky had to say on the "narcissistic loony toon" remark: “Hillary Clinton wanted it on record that she was lashing out at her husband’s mistress. She may have faulted her husband for being inappropriate, but I find her impulse to blame the Woman — not only me, but herself — troubling.”
So may other people — especially millennials, and especially millennial women who know a lot more about Slutwalks than the Starr Report. Viewed with nearly 20 years of distance and a far more enlightened understanding of slut-shaming, it's clear to many young feminists (myself very much included) that Lewinsky got a disproportionately raw deal. And one could argue that Clinton helped perpetuate that, even if it was in an effort to help her husband.
Of course, this aspect of the Lewinsky scandal and the impact it could have on Clinton's political rise has been brought up before. Rebecca Traister wrote in her book on the 2008 election, Big Girls Don't Cry, that former MSNBC anchor Melissa Harris-Perry said Clinton was an "appalling choice as a feminist," noting “not that she stayed with her husband, but that she did not speak out in defense of a barely-older-than-teenage girl who was harassed by her husband … And then she used that experience to create sympathy for herself.”
By no means do I agree with Harris-Perry or Dawson. However, I do think it is ignorant for Clinton's campaign to assume that all questions related to Lewinsky can simply be deflected and automatically categorized as low blows. Sure, many (maybe even most) can. After all, I firmly believe that Clinton shouldn't have to answer for her husband's sexual behavior.
But the way Clinton responded to the women who came forward, and whether she was complicit in the efforts to silence or skewer them, may very well prove relevant to voters — especially younger ones. The sooner Clinton and her campaign realize that, the smoother her road to the White House will be.