It brings me no pleasure to say this, but there is no good reason for Bill Clinton to be speaking at the 2020 Democratic convention.
Like a lot of millennials whose politics align much more closely with Democrats than Republicans, I used to admire Bill Clinton. One of my earliest political memories was going to an Iowa county fair with my parents, aunt, uncle, and cousins in the summer of 1992 to see then-candidate Bill Clinton speak. He was cool. He said all the right things. He was the merciful end of the Reagan-Bush era.
A lot of time has passed since then. And now Bill Clinton is a relic, and embracing Bill Clinton weakens Democrats’ claims that they’re the antidote to Trump and his Republican party. Trump is a proud sex creep with no regard for the personhood of women, and his own power-obsessed party excuses this behavior. But Clinton’s presence reminds women voters that Democrats once excused and enabled a man credibly accused of multiple instances of sexual misconduct, and that man, despite never quite demonstrating an understanding of the depth of his wrongdoing by making amends with the women he targeted, is still at center stage.
As a Millennial woman, I’m still appalled by the way the Clintons, many of their contemporary Democrats, and a largely sycophantic press treated Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones. Clinton has also spent a suspicious amount of time palling around with Jeffrey Epstein, just like Donald Trump. Not a great PR move to have a man recently implicated in child sex crimes speak at a political convention. Either serious sexual misconduct is a red line for Democrats, or it’s a political tool to wield at their own cynical convenience.
Donald Trump is a bullhorn racist with a bizarre hard-on for fascist policing. Leading Democrats have finally acknowledged the urgency in reforming the racist American justice system. But one reason things are as bad as they are now is Bill Clinton’s incarceration-happy Violent Crime Control Act and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which he’s apologized for (kind of) without seeming to understand the harm it caused.
In order for Democrats to win in November, they must energize women, young people, and people of color. There’s no winning without these demographics. They also have to remind some of the white women who voted for Trump that the Democratic party doesn’t tolerate the sort of abhorrent male shithead behavior that Republicans have with President Trump. Giving Clinton a speaking slot is a reminder of some of the ways Democrats have historically failed these populations. Giving Clinton a long leash while only allotting 60 seconds to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shows how far they have to go to understand the coalition they need to actually win.
I suppose I can see what party leaders might think is the logic behind tapping Bill to speak, again. He was president for eight years, a time that was prosperous for many Americans. Some Democratic voters still like him quite a bit, especially people who were old enough to vote for him in 1992. He’s good at raising money. Or, perhaps, members of the DNCC are afraid Bill would get mad at them if he were snubbed.
But if “drawing unnecessary attention to uncomfortable hypocrisy that the party should be wont to leave behind” isn’t reason enough to keep him away from the DNC spotlight, how’s this: Bill Clinton says a lot of things that require cleanup from his handlers. He’s a gaffe machine. At this point, his illustrious career in own-goaling has been longer than his presidency.
In 2008, Bill Clinton supported his wife’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination by making comments that offended Black voters and revived an embarrassing lie Hillary had told about arriving in Bosnia under fire by mischaracterizing how many times and under what circumstances she’d repeated the lie.
In 2016, campaign spokespeople had to walk back some wild comments Bill made about the Affordable Care Act and the awfulness of the Obama years. Bill also told CBS News that Hillary Clinton “frequently” becomes faint, which fueled the insane right-wing media theory that the Democratic presidential nominee was frail and in failing health. On the stump, Bill spoke condescendingly about Bernie Sanders’ supporters’ desire for single-payer health care when his wife needed their support in her bid for the presidency.
When the #MeToo movement led to a national reckoning with sexual misconduct, Bill Clinton astutely pointed out that “changing norms” meant that you can’t do the same things to somebody against their will that you used to. What? That terrible horrible no-good very bad turn of phrase came just weeks after an NBC interview wherein Clinton claimed that he didn’t have to apologize to Monica Lewinsky. For that non-apology, he later apologized. But not to Monica Lewinsky.
And earlier this month, Clinton spoke at Rep. John Lewis’ funeral, where he couldn’t help but use the eulogy to take a swing at Stokely Carmichael, for no discernible reason.
There are worse possible 2020 DNC speakers than Bill Clinton, but I can’t think of many. Jim Traficant? Anthony Weiner? Harvey Weinstein?
If the Democrats want to present a forward-looking vision for a party that has learned from its mistakes and is primed to get to the work of healing the country it aims to serve, they need to stop making the baffling choice of shining the spotlight on Bill Clinton. It makes about as much sense as a philandering ex-husband giving a toast at his former wife’s second wedding reception.
I wish this weren’t the case. I wish Bill Clinton had done real work to publicly make amends with his personal and political missteps. But he’s had dozens of chances to demonstrate the kind of growth a progressive party should demand of its members, and seems either incapable or unwilling to do it. The older I get, the less Clinton looks like a hero and the more he looks like an embarrassment.
Nobody’s perfect, but a hell of a lot of people are better. And it’s time for the Democratic party to understand that.