Politics

02.10.14

Monica Who-insky? Why Clinton Attacks Won't Work this Time

Republicans are banking on Clinton fatigue to diminish Hillary’s appeal, but it might not matter for 2016’s electorate.

Republicans are still working on their argument against Hillary Clinton, but it’s clear they will rely on the sense that there’s “Clinton fatigue”—that Hillary, and her husband, have been in the public eye for too long, and that Americans want to choose from a new generation of leaders.

It’s one reason Kentucky Senator Rand Paul—a high profile presidential hopeful—has been banging the Clinton drum for the last month, hitting the former president for his affair with Monica Lewinsky, and attacking Democrats for their “hypocrisy,” i.e., the idea that they can’t admire Bill Clinton and support women’s rights (for the record, this is wrong).

Setting aside President Clinton’s status as one of the most popular people in American politics (something that’s also true of Hillary, though it’s certain to change), there’s also the ironic fact that it’s the strategy—not Clinton—which is behind the times.

A large plurality of American voters, and 46 percent of the people who voted in 2012, are between the ages of 18 and 44. The oldest of these voters were in their twenties during the Clinton administration, and—given the Democratic turn among young voters during the 1990s—are likely to support the former first lady in a future election. The middle cohort of those voters—Americans in their twenties—were alive during the 1990s, but not politically aware. These are people whose views were shaped during the Bush administration, and they’re largely Democratic.

As for the youngest of those voters? They weren’t even alive during the Clinton years, and if they were, they were small children. For them, Monica Lewinsky is a reference in a history book, and Hillary Clinton is a presidential candidate and powerful official—not the subject of scandals like Whitewater and debacles like Hillarycare.

Now, it is true that the overall electorate skews older—the median age of all voters in 2012 was 51—and includes a host of people who remember the Clinton years, and don’t want to relive them. The problem for Republicans, however, is that the majority of these voters—who skewed conservative in the early 1990s—are already on their side. A “Clinton fatigue” message might resonate with them, but it’s not clear that it would matter, even on the margins.

Simply put, if Hillary Clinton runs for president and if she is the Democratic nominee, she’ll have a chance to reintroduce herself to an electorate that’s younger than it was in 2012, and filled with people—nearly a majority—who have no memory of her prior time in the White House. Indeed, if anything—given the “Texts from Hillary Meme” and other social media conquests—she’s likely to have a connection to younger voters, one that could outweigh her residual political baggage. It also helps that there’s no evidence voters get “tired” of politicians who have been in the public eye for an extended period.

This, it should be said, gets to a broader point that is important to reiterate whenever elections are on the horizon. Prospects for the presidency are tied to economic performance. If Hillary Clinton is running in a healthy economy, then her chances are great, regardless of her history. And if things are as sluggish as they are now, then she’s much weaker than she looks, and the more ephemeral variables—like “Clinton fatigue”—become a lot more important.