Hillary Clinton’s Master Class in Distraction

Posted October 17, 2018 10:26 p.m. EDT

Hillary Clinton has been on a bit of a media tear the past few weeks, holding forth on both the personal and the political — and making clear that someone needs to perform an intervention before she further complicates life for her fellow Democrats.

In these furious, final days before the midterms, Democratic candidates need to be laser focused on their message to voters. They need to be talking health care and jobs and other issues of intense, personal concern to their electorate. They do not need to be talking about impeachment, or about the results of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s DNA testing. And they definitely do not need to get distracted by unnecessary drama generated by comments from one of the party’s most iconic, and most controversial, figures.

And yet, there was Clinton, in an Oct. 9 interview with CNN, sharing her take on the need for Democrats to — as Michelle Obama might have put it — go low with today’s Republicans. As Clinton sees it, “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about.”

She is hardly alone in this assessment. It’s safe to say that a vast majority of Democrats feel that President Donald Trump and his congressional accomplices need to be reined in — and preferably hogtied — to halt their flagrant assault on democratic norms and institutions.

But there are also plenty of Americans, including many of the independents and swing voters the Democrats are working so hard to woo in this cycle, who feel queasy about the depths to which public discourse has sunk and are not eager for an arms race of unpleasantness. Having Clinton proclaim political civility dead until her team wins again is unlikely to prove an inspirational message for these voters.

It is, however, extremely likely to electrify the Republican base, in whose collective lizard brain Clinton still looms large — the ultimate boogeyman to be invoked whenever a Republican politician is having trouble exciting his constituents, or when a Supreme Court hopeful needs to shore up his endangered nomination. For a GOP desperate to get its voters to the polls on Nov. 6, what could be more welcome than “Crooked Hillary” jumping in to inflame partisan passions?

Unfortunately, it took Clinton less than a week to come up with an even juicier midterm gift for Trump & Company. In a sit-down with “CBS Sunday Morning,” she was asked several pointed questions about her husband’s Oval Office dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.

To be fair, she was asked the questions. But her reaction was to point out that Lewinsky had been an adult at the time of the affair — as though that technical legality, when the president of the United States was getting busy with an intern who was young enough to be his daughter, was all that mattered. Hillary Clinton then pivoted to demand why no one was investigating the myriad accusations of sexual harassment and assault against the current occupant of the White House.

Trump being a pig and an alleged sexual predator in no way excuses Bill Clinton from being a pig and an alleged sexual predator. In fact, by declining to re-examine her own husband’s acts, Hillary Clinton only makes it easier for Trump’s defenders to ignore the current president’s. (Juanita Broaddrick’s accusation that she was raped by Bill Clinton in 1978 can be revisited in a recent episode of the Slate podcast “Slow Burn.”)

But Hillary Clinton went further. She smacked down the notion that her husband should have resigned over the whole sordid mess — “Absolutely not” — or that it constituted an abuse of power. Which it absolutely did — and would have been even if Bill Clinton had been the president of a small business rather than of the United States. She also insisted that she had no regrets about how she had handled her “personal life” in the 1990s: “I did what I thought was right, and I feel very good about that.” And she rejected the suggestion that having “not contended fully” with her husband’s accusers makes it harder for her to be an effective supporter of the #MeToo movement. “Well, no,” she said, “because there was the most intense, comprehensive investigation,” which she believes “came out in the right place.”

It’s one thing for a wife to stand by her spouse, especially when both have long been the targets of partisan warriors dead-set on destroying them. But it is no secret that Bill Clinton’s response to sexual scandal was to try to trash the reputations of the women involved. And while the degree to which Hillary Clinton joined in such efforts may remain in dispute — in the CBS interview, she denies having played any role — her fundamental complicity is beyond reasonable doubt.

This is the sort of moral arrogance and self-justification that has long troubled even many Democrats about Hillary Clinton. The former first lady, turned senator, turned secretary of state may have been one of the most qualified nominees ever to run for president. But widespread ambivalence about her among not only swing voters but also her own base set the stage for her to lose the presidency to arguably the least qualified individual ever to hold that office.

Two years since that loss, Clinton remains broadly unpopular. As of late September, her favorability rating still hovered at 36 percent, down several points from where it was at the time of the election.

Clinton remains a singular obsession of Trump and his followers. The higher her profile, the more Republican leaders can use her as a rallying point for their voters. Months ago, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee boasted of his party’s plan to hang her around Democrats’ neck in the midterms: “We’re going to make them own her.”

Hillary Clinton is a woman of extraordinary achievement who has earned the right to share her views on whatever topic she sees fit. But this close to Election Day, discussing hot-button issues in national interviews is nothing but problematic for her party — and, ultimately, her own legacy. She and Bill Clinton are set to begin a series of joint speaking appearances soon after the elections. Perhaps she could save her more incendiary observations for then.

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