LOOMING DRAMA

Why Hillary Can’t Shake Bill’s Affairs

Paula Jones reappeared on the very day a woman asked Hillary about Bill’s alleged sexual victims. It’s the ’90s again—but with a difference.

01.05.16 5:01 AM ET

It’s the “Bimbo Eruption” Redux. As you may have seen, Paula Jones reappeared on Sunday, giving a lengthy interview to a conservative radio host that Breitbart.com pantingly promoted, charging that Hillary Clinton is the enemy of American women. The same day, Clinton was heckled up in New Hampshire by a female Republican state representative to answer for the allegations against her husband regarding two women who say Bill Clinton assaulted or raped them. Back we go to the 1990s.

Will any of this matter? Most of it won’t. The vast majority of voters aren’t going to care about the 20- and 30-year-old alleged sexual activities of an almost septuagenarian man. But Hillary does have a potential Achilles’ heel here, which she opened the door to herself with one word she uttered back in September, and she may yet have a little explaining to do here to nail down a voting bloc that she’s going to need in a big way come November.

First, what won’t matter. Monica Lewinsky won’t matter. Gennifer Flowers won’t matter. These were consensual relationships. Whatever else people might think of Bill’s judgment, most folks quite rightly consider these affairs to be his (and the women’s) private business. Either could decide to make trouble if they wanted to, I guess, especially Lewinsky, but I have trouble seeing how big trouble could really be made.

But what about Jones and Kathleen Willey and Juanita Broaddrick? They claim not that they had consensual relations with Bill, but that he did unwanted things to them. Jones said he exposed himself to her and propositioned her in 1991. Willey charged he groped her in the White House in 1993. And Broaddrick alleged that he raped her in 1978.

These things have all been masticated a thousand-million times. Bill Clinton denies all three allegations. With Jones, he settled a civil suit for $850,000, admitting no guilt. She didn’t help her case back then by attaching herself to conservative movement lawyers and organizations  and letting her suit become the vehicle for what was undeniably a conspiracy—perhaps not vast, as Hillary famously charged on the Today show in 1998, but certainly right-wing—to lay Clinton low by any means necessary. With respect to Willey, she changed her story and was ultimately regarded by the independent counsel that was sniffing Clinton’s bedsheets as an unrealiable witness (PDF). Broaddrick’s charge is obviously the most serious, but inconsistencies have been noted here, too, and it’s now almost 40 years old.

Willey and Broaddrick haven’t been that vocal recently. For her part, Jones says... well, lots of stuff: Hillary “needs to do a public apology or something or other (for) all the women who have come out and said publicly what her husband did to them. Yes, she does. I believe she does”; Hillary is “such a liar. And she’s so two-faced. I never once was contacted by her. Not one time and apologized about what her husband did to me”; “I don’t see how women would even be able to trust her if the man who is her husband who has abused and harassed and did other things to women and she knew about it.”

If Jones had more savvy, she’d have planned her reemergence a lot more cleverly than she did. Instead of going to conservative talk radio, she’d have tried NPR or something. Maybe NPR wouldn’t touch it, but someplace more mainstream, and she’d have said something like: Yes, I regret that I let my case get hijacked by people with other agendas; that was wrong, but they were the only ones listening to me at the time. If her goal is actually to keep Hillary Clinton out of the White House, she needs to move the needle, get people to take her seriously who didn’t then, and she sure didn’t accomplish that.

But Hillary Clinton still isn’t in the clear here. Back last September in Iowa, she said the words: “Today I want to send a message to every survivor of sexual assault. Don't let anyone silence your voice. You have the right to be heard. You have the right to be believed, and we’re with you.” Obviously, “believed” is the operative word there, and quite reasonably, conservatives pounced on it at the time; oh, well then, do Jones/Willey/Broaddrick deserve to be “believed”? As Michelle Goldberg noted last week at Slate, a voter asked Clinton essentially this in New Hampshire in December, and her answer wasn’t the greatest: “Well, I would say that everybody should be believed at first, until they are disbelieved based on evidence.”

The other potential complication for Clinton may center around the question of what she did, if anything, to discredit Jones and the others. Jones said this in her interview, too. It’s been a given for years on the anti-Clinton right that Hillary Macbeth orchestrated vicious campaigns to discredit these women. The mainstream press has never really picked this up; to conservatives, that’s because of liberal media bias, to the rest of us, it’s because there’s been no hard evidence of this, and because there exists a long, long, long list of things they’ve accused Hillary of doing that she pretty obviously never did.

Chances are, assuming no corroborating evidence turns up in any of these three cases, most voters aren’t going to be very interested. But Hillary Clinton still has to think through how she handles this. As Goldberg noted in her piece, the politics around sexual harassment and assault have changed a lot since the 1990s, in ways that are for the better in general but sure don’t strengthen Hillary’s hand if/when she has to discuss these cases directly.

In addition, she’ll need to bear in mind when she does talk about all this that for most women voters, this story isn’t about the old “vast right-wing conspiracy,” of which most will have at best a fleeting memory. It’s about the reality of sexual predation in their lives. That state representative from New Hampshire who heckled her was “very rude,” as Clinton said; but she is also a rape survivor, as are millions of other American women. That’s the audience Clinton will need to speak to, not liberals who remember who Linda Tripp was.

She’ll need a big women’s vote. Compared to any of the Republicans, she has the track record to have earned it. Conservatives of course know this, so carrying on about Bill is the way they’ll try to neutralize her advantage. It’s a bit rich to see members of the party that voted against the Violence Against Women Act among numerous other positions playing the role of defenders of women, but that’s how it’s going to be. Clinton might have to dance away from that “believed” at some point, and it’s going to be a delicate dance.