While Republicans are wrestling over whether to fully embrace a lecherous scofflaw, Democrats are finally breaking with one. This is how the latter party would prefer the nation’s narrative-shapers frame the left’s apparent determination to confront the allegations against President Bill Clinton. The fact that this great coming to terms occurs at a moment of utmost political opportunity is, they’d contend, pure coincidence.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat, has adopted the noble cause of confronting sexual harassment and abuse in public institutions, ranging from the military to Capitol Hill, and making it easier for victims to come forward. The passion with which she confronts these issues is laudable. So, too, is her decision to come out against Bill Clinton, one of her party’s formerly untouchable serial offenders.
Democrats have displayed few qualms about attacking Republicans for elevating to the presidency a boastful adulterer who bragged on tape about his penchant for forcing himself on women. Nor have they shown any compunction about criticizing a party that refuses to rule out swearing in a prospective U.S. senator accused of “dating” a 14-year-old girl while in his 30s. But some Democrats have struggled to square those criticisms with the imperative of defending Bill Clinton, who was also credibly accused by multiple women of sexual assault and harassment. Gillibrand found a novel way around this moral conundrum: don’t.
Asked last week by New York Times reporters about whether Clinton should have resigned the presidency after it was revealed that he did, in fact, have consensual sexual relations with a White House intern, “Gillibrand took a long pause and said, ‘Yes, I think that is the appropriate response.’” That comment supposedly sent “shockwaves” rippling throughout the Democratic establishment, but few beyond an aging cast of satellites trapped in the Clintons’ orbit reacted with much public consternation. Why should they care? After all, Gillibrand’s allegedly fearless denunciation of Clinton comes just a few months after the Clintons’ political utility was entirely spent.
In 2012, Bill Clinton was the invaluable “explainer-in-chief,” a potent contrast to the staid and professorial Barack Obama. In 2016, Bill Clinton was the epitome of grace, the admiring husband swallowing his pride and vacating the stage for his wife. Today, with the GOP having abandoned a zero-tolerance policy for impropriety and the Democrats having adopted one, the Clintons are more a burden than a benefit. Accordingly, Democrats’ calculations have changed.
Gillibrand displayed no outward signs of gripping internal conflict when she often appeared alongside the former president on the campaign trail in 2016. Presumably, no one blackmailed her into expressing how “truly honored” she was to receive Bill Clinton’s assistance in her campaigns dating back to 2006. Gillibrand evinced no displeasure when the Clinton machine in New York muscled former Harold Ford Jr. out of a prospective race to take Hillary Clinton’s old Senate seat. Only Gillibrand’s closest friends know if she was concerned about appearances when New York Gov. David Paterson picked her to fill Clinton’s term in 2009 after Caroline Kennedy, an early Obama endorser, mysteriously withdrew from consideration. If she considered resigning as a special counsel to Bill Clinton’s HUD Secretary, Andrew Cuomo, she kept that information to herself.
Gillibrand’s reluctance to adopt a long-standing conservative line on Bill Clinton until he achieved maximum political worthlessness might look to outside observers more like calculation than conscience, but the senator has an excuse for her lateness. “Things have changed today,” she told the Times. She expanded on her thoughts in an interview with MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt. “My point is that the tolerance that we had 25 years ago, what was allowed 25 years ago, will not be tolerated today, is not allowed today,” she said. Who could forget the 1990s, when only prudes concerned themselves with illicit extramarital sex, alleged rape, character assassination, perjury, and impeachment?
Gillibrand is also expressing disappointment with Senator Al Franken, who is, as of this writing, accused by two women of inappropriate behavior. When pressed as to what the standard should be for an elected official to resign amid allegations like those faced by Franken, Gillibrand said she did not know—perhaps forgetting that her newfound place in the national spotlight is a result of her establishing that very bar just a few days ago. As it happens, Franken remains a beloved figure in the party and a major draw at fundraising dinners. Surely another coincidence.
As Gillibrand continued, though, she gave away the game. “We need to have the highest standards for elected leaders,” she said. “And I think in light of this conversation, we should have a very different conversation about President Trump, and a very different conversation about allegations against him.” It’s not Gillibrand’s fault that English suffers from a frustrating lack of synonyms for the word “conversation,” but she deserves some censure for coming to the right conclusion about Bill Clinton only when it became impossibly hypocritical to credibly attack the 45th President while standing by the 42nd.
Some Democrats who are longing to end the Clintons hold on the Democratic Party believe that Gillibrand’s break from this old political family is an honorable move, and that she should, therefore, be above criticism. Scolding her obvious opportunism might dissuade other Democrats from following her lead. But that’s not how principle works. Consistency is a virtue even when it goes unrecognized.
According to Gillibrand, this “is a moment of reckoning.” Indeed, it’s long overdue. Bill Clinton’s star has faded to the point that the accusations against him can be considered on their merits. In the age of “the right to be believed,” the truly courageous would also face up to Hillary Clinton’s hypocrisy on the matter. Sure, the women whose accounts she once sought to “destroy” and “crucify” were not afforded the credibility Democrats now believe is an alleged victim’s due. But you have to remember, she did win the popular vote.