October 2, 2016
In addition to allowing his campaign to be sidetracked in favor of engaging in a Twitter war with a former Miss Universe, Donald Trump has spent much of the past week changing gears and insinuating that he may target Bill Clinton’s extramarital dalliances in his race with Hillary Clinton. This would be yet another mistake for the Trump campaign. There are two issues here, one of which Trump can effectively target and one of which would backfire. The first issue is Bill Clinton’s affairs themselves. These can’t be used against Hillary, since she wasn’t sleeping around, and will backfire since she’s seen as the victim in those cases. After all, she is the betrayed spouse. The second issue, however, is how Hillary Clinton treated the women in these cases, targeting, harassing, and attempting to personally destroy them. Theoretically, this could be used as an effective attack against someone who largely bases her campaign on being an advocate for women. The problem is that the line between these two issues is too thin for even a skilled politician to walk, and Trump certainly lacks the subtlety to make this distinction.
Let’s dispense off the bat with any notions as to the fairness or legitimacy of these attacks. Every cycle both candidates and both campaigns complain about how their opponent is hitting below the belt and certain attacks (against their candidate, of course) should be off limits. My test for determining whether an attack is out of bounds is simple. If it resonates with the American people, it’s fair. If not, it’s unfair, but the system will regulate itself in that the attack will backfire against the offending candidate. The American people will decide whether each attack is fair or not. Some people may argue that the American people can be unfair, and while I don’t disagree, I’m certainly not inclined to let the Clinton campaign define what is a fair attack against Hillary or vice versa for the Trump campaign. This is a presidential race, not Sunday school, and if a line of attack is effective, it will be used.
Now, the idea of using Bill Clinton’s affairs against Hillary, unless the whole purpose is simply to antagonize her and hope she crawls down into the gutter with Trump, has always struck me as kind of funny. Trump would essentially be attacking the wife for the sins of the husband when those sins are of a kind of which Trump himself is guilty. Furthermore, if anyone was humiliated and victimized by these dalliances, it was Hillary. For Trump to attempt to humiliate her further for something with which she had nothing to do would only serve to make the voters feel bad for her, make her more relatable and sympathetic (helping her strengthen one of her major weak points in the process), and give her yet another opportunity to take the high road. It’s clear that going after Bill’s affairs themselves would be the type of foolishly personal attack that Trump tends to make.
A separate issue is how Hillary responded to and treated the women that Bill victimized*. Not only did she stand up for a serial womanizer and defend him politically, she did so by attacking personally and viciously the women whom he victimized. In essence, she blamed and attacked the victims, making every attempt to belittle them, drag them through the mud, and destroy them on a very personal level. This is hardly the type of behavior we would expect from someone claiming to be an advocate for women, and is the type of vindictive personality that should scare us in a president. While Bill’s affairs themselves don’t make for a strong attack against Hillary, her response and behavior in the ensuing scandals does.
The problem for Donald Trump in approaching this second issue is how inextricably linked the two issues are. It would be very difficult for even the most skilled politician to make a case against Hillary for her behavior in Bill’s sex scandals, particularly her treatment of the women involved, without looking like they are attacking her for the affairs themselves, which she had nothing to do with and was hurt by more than anyone else. To do so would require a tremendous amount of nuance, and that is not Donald Trump’s forte. For most politicians, and for Donald Trump especially, it would be advisable to simply steer clear of this minefield, though that doesn’t seem to be Donald Trump’s style. Thus far in the campaign, Donald Trump hasn’t steered clear of minefields. He’s danced in them.
*I’m describing the women Bill Clinton slept with as victims because I’m trying to fully flesh out the argument that Trump would make, and, regardless of the consensual nature of the relationships, when you have the President of the United States sleeping with an intern, there is something about the power dynamic that makes the situation unsavory. If you take issue with the characterization of Flowers or Lewinsky as victims, please don’t get hung up on the semantics. The point is simply to make the argument.