WASHINGTON — Donald Trump reignited a 25-year-old accusation this week, accusing Bill Clinton of rape and offering an explosive start to what promises to be a salacious and at times slimy presidential campaign over the next six months.
This young general election campaign is not one of policy papers or high-minded debates about income inequality or taxes. This is one of sexual allegations and crass language. It’s one that is more fit for pay per view and hushed conversations, not the nightly network news with the family gathered round.
It’s also a contest that people can’t take their eyes off of. The whole thing can teeter, sometimes by the hour, between lighthearted entertainment and something akin to drivers slowing down to gawk at a highway accident.
“As a voter, I find it distasteful and sordid. But as a political observer, I think it’s pretty savvy,” said Ana Navarro, a Florida-based Republican analyst. “Trump knows he has a glass house with women, so he reminds everyone, Bill Clinton does too.”
Trump’s decision to dredge up the decades-old rape allegation against Clinton — an unprecedented personal attack by a GOP nominee — foreshadows a campaign fought by the candidates themselves and by surrogate political groups over personal behavior and old scandals.
Both the Trump and Clinton campaigns are girding for a battle that is geared toward not only winning the support of women, but making sure their opponent loses it. It also introduces deeply personal accusations into a campaign that has devolved into the most negative presidential contest in modern American history.
The likely Republican nominee has low poll numbers among women and a history of misogynstic behavior in the campaign and for years before it. And so, in the eyes of some analysts, his latest remarks are an effort to neutralize his own issues with women.
During an interview with Trump on Fox News that aired on Wednesday night, commentator Sean Hannity referred to a recent New York Times article and listed several women who had accused Clinton of misconduct.
“Are they going to interview Juanita Broaddrick? Are they going to interview Paula Jones? Are they going to interview Kathleen Willey?” Hannity asked. “In one case, it’s about exposure. In another case, it’s about groping and fondling and touching against a woman’s will.”
Trump then added: “And rape.”
Hannity agreed: “And rape.”
Hillary Clinton on Thursday called Trump “divisive and dangerous,” “unmoored,” and unfit to be president. But she declined to respond directly to his recent accusations.
“I know that’s exactly what he’s fishing for, and I’m not going to be responding,” she said in an interview with CNN, saying that she instead would counter his rhetoric at other people. “I’m going after him exactly on those issues and statements that are divisive and dangerous, and I actually think that’s what the American people want to see.”
Trump has used other language while campaigning, targeting an opponent who seeks to be the first woman president. He called a bathroom break that Hillary Clinton took during a Democratic debate “disgusting,” and he used the word “schlonged” to describe her 2008 loss to Barack Obama.
He recently nicknamed her “Crooked Hillary,” and called her a “nasty, mean enabler” of her husband’s infidelities.
On matters of sexual improprieties, though, Trump might not be the ideal spokesman.
During a deposition taken during their divorce, Trump’s ex-wife Ivana used the word “rape” to describe an incident with him in 1989. The Globe reported last month on a lawsuit that was filed — and later dropped — in which he was accused of sexual misconduct in the early 1990s while partnering on a pin-up calendar girl competition.
“What I find shocking is how personal and hypocritical his attacks are,” said Katie Packer, a Republican strategist who served as deputy campaign manager of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and is now running an anti-Trump group.
Packer pointed out that Trump has socialized with Bill Clinton, complimented him, donated money to his foundation, and invited him to his wedding. Not until Trump decided to run for president, she said, did he “level these incendiary charges in order to distract from his own bad behavior with women.”
“The difference between Donald and Bill is that only Donald is running for president,” Packer said. “Most women, whether they like Hillary or not, don’t hold her responsible for her husband’s bad behavior.”
Inevitably, Hillary Clinton’s candidacy can serve as a reminder of the strengths and weaknesses of her husband.
In 1999, Broaddrick went public with allegations that Clinton raped her in 1978, when he was Arkansas attorney general. She had previously denied the encounter in a court affidavit. Clinton’s lawyers denied the allegation.
In 1998, Clinton agreed to a $850,000 settlement with Jones, who had accused Clinton of exposing himself to her while he was governor of Arkansas. There was no admission of guilt in the settlement.
The accusations were an undercurrent in Clinton’s own presidential campaigns in 1992 and 1996, whispered and promoted behind the scenes among aides and surrogates, and a backdrop to his 1998 impeachment by the Republican-controlled House. But never did his Republican opponents George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole, bring up the rape allegations themselves. Nor did Hillary Clinton’s Republican challenger Rick Lazio dredge it up during their race for the Senate.
“The Clintons have met their match in someone who’s not a pushover or an apologist,” said Dave Carney, a Republican consultant from New Hampshire.
The attacks pose strategic questions for Hillary Clinton: How low should she go in responding to Trump? Should she, like Trump, serve as her own chief attack dog?
“The dark art of moving opposition research is now right out in the open,” said Kevin Madden, former Romney strategist. “It’s guaranteed to get coverage because of Trump’s willingness to push them himself, on air, in the middle of an on-the-record interview.”
Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist, said Trump is rehashing the Clintons’ history in hopes of turning young voters against Hillary Clinton. His advice to her? Stay above the fray.
“You don’t go into the gutter with a guy like that,” Manley said. “It’s a no-win opportunity. Most other politicians would keep their mouths shut, having some sensitivity for their own faults. This guy simply doesn’t care.”
Enter third-party groups and surrogates, which will be deployed to highlight the skeletons in Trump’s closet, Manley said.
Priorities USA, a pro-Clinton super PAC, this week released an ad that uses quotes from Trump throughout the campaign in which he says negative things about women.
Trump referred to the ad in a tweet on Tuesday, writing, “Amazing that Crooked Hillary can do a hit ad on me concerning women when her husband was the WORST abuser of woman in US political history.”
Political consultants warn that the tone of political discourse will only get worse in coming weeks and months.
“This is sort of like the preseason game in football,” Carney said. “This is not even anywhere near negative yet. They should settle the federal deficit by putting the presidential debates on pay per view. People will tune in for the whole 90 minutes. It’ll be like watching cage fighting.”Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com. Tracy Jan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.