Here’s my Bill Clinton “reckoning.’’
Clinton v. George H.W. Bush. I vote Clinton.
Clinton v. Bob Dole. I vote Clinton.
That was the calculation in the ’90s. Gennifer Flowers didn’t change it. Neither did Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, Juanita Broaddrick, or Monica Lewinsky. And for all the frenzy after Harvey Weinstein, it’s still the calculation now.
Elections are about imperfect choices. Character is weighed and everyone has a line they won’t cross. But in the end, voters usually support the person whose political views most closely reflect their own. They leave complicating moral judgments to God and history.
That’s why Massachusetts voters sent Ted Kennedy to Washington for more than 40 years, despite allegations of womanizing and the accident at Chappaquiddick that caused the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. Keeping the liberal lion in office took precedence over punishing a flawed man on election day. That’s why Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama is sticking with embattled GOP nominee Roy Moore. Ivey said she believes the women who say he preyed upon them when they were teenagers, including one woman who said he molested her when she was 14. But Ivey will still cast a vote for Moore because “we need to have a Republican in the United States Senate to vote on the things like Supreme Court justices.”
And that’s also why Donald Trump is president. Not because all Trump voters disbelieve the 20 women who have gone on the record to describe his alleged sexual misconduct. He’s president because enough voters in enough states believed he reflected their interests and views — no matter what happened with those women. The Access Hollywood video wasn’t a deal breaker, because Trump supporters were more interested in what he had to say about immigration and the economy than what he had to say about crotch-grabbing.
After Weinstein, men in Hollywood, the media, and tech are losing jobs and reputations as corporate boards move to protect their brands. Whether this is a watershed moment in politics is much less certain, because it means taking a stand for high-minded principle, against what’s commonly thought of as political self-interest. Voters are less inclined to do it — and that’s what politicians like Moore and Trump are counting on.
Meanwhile, making Bill Clinton the issue 25 years after his presidency plays directly into Trump’s small hands. In 2016, Trump was able to use quarter-century old accusations against Bill to his advantage against Hillary Clinton. Trump wasn’t held accountable for his own alleged misbehavior then, and he isn’t being held accountable today. He feels free to call his accusers liars, while believing any woman who accuses a Democrat. At least Clinton paid a price for his transgressions. He was impeached. Even so, he left office with an approval rating of 65 percent — higher than Barack Obama’s. For loyalty to her husband, Hillary Clinton paid a price too. She will live with the consequences, which include the end of her own political ambition, even if she has yet to accept that outcome.
I began by confessing my calculation if the election day choice comes down to two competing political ideologies. But what about some future primary run-up? Today, would a Bill Clinton-like candidate be drummed out on #MeToo-driven moral grounds, handing the nomination over to a rival? Would a voter say, I like what the next Bill Clinton is saying, but what he did disqualifies him for the Senate or the presidency? For liberal voters like me, that future test will come.
For Republicans, the test is now, with Moore. Maybe backing a candidate who allegedly molested a 14-year-old is a line Alabama voters won’t cross, even if it means losing a Senate seat to a Democrat. Principle wins only when voters demand it.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.