Old News

05.06.14

Monica Lewinsky Is Ancient History To Many Voters

Despite the re-emergence of Monica Lewinsky in the public eye, it's unlikely that she'll have any political impact.

The reemergence of Monica Lewinsky in a forthcoming tell-all in Vanity Fair has pundits wagging their tongues over the potential implications if Hillary Clinton runs for President in 2016. After all, the 24-hour news cycle was born in the feverish atmosphere of the Clinton Wars and it shaped modern politics untold ways. Matt Drudge gained notoriety by reporting that Newsweek had spiked a story on Lewinsky, the powerful liberal activist group MoveOn.Org got its name from an email petition encouraging Congress not to impeach Clinton but simply censure him and "move on." Even CNN's Jake Tapper first got noticed in journalism for writing about his single date with Monica Lewinsky for Washington City Paper. But this was all more than a decade and a half ago and the question emerges whether it actually matters or whether the media furor around it is simply because an entire generation of political journalists have found themselves back in safe, familiar territory.

An entire generation has passed since the Lewinsky scandal. The 2016 election will take place almost 18 years years after Clinton's impeachment and there will be voters were still in utero during heart of the Lewinsky scandal when the country spent the summer of 1998 debating whether oral sex was actually "sex." In 2013, already over a quarter of the electorate were millennials (those born in 1980 or later) and that proportion will only grow. The youngest person who able to vote the last time Bill Clinton was on the ballot is almost 36 years-old today and millions of voters will be familar with Lewinsky not from tabloid headlines but as someone mentioned in passing towards the end of their high school history textbooks.

This is not to say that Lewinsky and the Clinton scandals are totally irrelevant. After all, Bill Clinton, who was the 2012 keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention, would likely be omnipresent on the campaign trail if his wife mounts another bid for the Oval Office and the entire history of 1990s ranging back to Whitewater, Travelgate, Vince Foster and a host of other hoary names will have to be covered yet again. This isn't even the first time that the political ghost of Lewinsky has been invoked this year as Rand Paul has mentioned her on several occaisions to condemn what the Kentucky senator views as Bill Clinton's sexual predation and Democratic hypocrisy with the "war on women."

Such condemnations may appeal to parts of the Republican base while priming diehard Clinton loyalists to run to the barricades to defend their hero, but to many Americans it evokes only a shrug. After all, the political furor around Lewinsky from 1998---the same year Google was founded and Titanic won Best Picture---feels like the distant past to a entire generation of voters.

It's hard to even find any precedent for long-past sexual peccadillos having an electoral impact, accusations that Grover Cleveland sired an illegitmate child didn't keep him from the White House in 1884. And, even when Hillary Clinton first ran for office in 2000 in the New York Senate race, the scandal had minimal political impact in the general election (although she was likely helped by running in New York, which is rather friendly territory for Democrats).

The scandal went unmentioned in 2008. It wasn't an issue which would likely damage Hillary Clinton among loyal Democratic voters in a primary and would have been off-message for both of her major opponents. (Referencing old scandals wouldn't have worked for Barack Obama in 2008 as the candidate of hope and change and John Edwards would have faced an entirely different set of obstacles invoking extramarital affairs.) But in a general election atmosphere, with Clinton already appearing to be a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination if she runs, there is an entirely different political calculus.

As a result, Lewinsky's specter will likely be invoked again and again in the coming years as a Clinton candidacy seems increasingly inevitable; but it almost certainly won't register. After all, most voters look to Buzzfeed, not politicians and the political media, for their 90s nostalgia.