When Vanity Fair announced Tuesday that it would publish a 4,300-word, score-settling essay by Monica Lewinsky revisiting her affair with President Bill Clinton, some Republicans saw an opportunity — and others saw a trap.
The article will mark the first time in years that Lewinsky has publicly addressed the sex scandal that led to Clinton's impeachment, and in a teaser released by the magazine, she accuses the administration, among others, of victimizing her in pursuit of power. "Sure, my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: it was a consensual relationship," she writes. "Any 'abuse' came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position."
To a certain contingent of combative conservatives, Lewinsky's reemergence represents an irresistible temptation — a chance to revisit the most embarrassing episode of the Clinton presidency, to recast Bill as a sexual predator whose past behavior undermines his party's "war on women" rhetoric, and to convince a new generation of voters ahead of the 2016 election that Hillary's true, power-hungry nature was exposed during the affair's fallout. They also believe — or at least, hope — that this is unlikely to be the last we hear from Lewinsky in the coming years.
Keith Appell, a Republican operative who worked with Swiftboat Veterans for Truth and more recently helped elect Florida Gov. Rick Scott, said Republicans looking to hobble Hillary Clinton's prospective presidential candidacy should show how she took part in the humiliation of a young intern in order to preserve political power for herself and her husband.
"This will always be a black mark on the Clinton presidency, which, from the beginning, was always both of them," Appell said. "That was made clear from day one. So, Hillary's appearance on the Today show, when she conjured up a vast right-wing conspiracy out to get the two of them, is a big part of this. Either she was delusional, or she was cynically trying to deflect and attack based on years of enabling him."
Rick Wilson, a Florida-based media strategist widely known in conservative circles for producing a controversial 2008 ad tying Barack Obama to the extreme statements of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, said Republicans should avoid calling up the sordid details of the Lewinsky affair, but instead focus on how the Clinton White House responded to it. "It would be smarter to remind everyone of the massive, government-funded Clinton operation to destroy Monica, and oh so many bimbo eruptions that came before, and Hillary's bloodless froideur when it came to keeping Bill in power," he said.
Even before Lewinsky's return to the spotlight, at least one high-profile Republican with his eye on the White House tried to make hay out of the 16-year-old sex scandal. In a series of interviews earlier this year, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul called Bill Clinton an "unsavory character" and a "sexual predator," and said Democratic candidates campaigning on women's issues should give back any money the former president helped them raise.
But while this kind of rhetoric delights right-wing activists and conservative media outlets, some Republicans believe reviving talk of the Lewinsky affair would be more about indulging the conservative id than following sound political strategy. They argue that in dredging up the sins of Clinton's past, conservatives risk ignoring the lessons of their own party's recent history.
In 1998, as revelations about Clinton's affair dominated the headlines, Republicans were confident that the scandal would result in a midterm landslide for them. But their relentless focus on the president's sex life — as well as allegations of perjury — looked obsessive and partisan to many voters. Democrats ultimately managed to stave off GOP gains in Congress by pointing to their opponents' overreach (and to the booming U.S. economy). Today, some Republicans worry they are on course to repeat the same mistakes.
"I think a lot of Republicans view Hillary as calculating and manipulative, and that she went through that Lewinsky process and did everything she could to stay in power," said Hogan Gidley, a GOP operative who has worked on the presidential campaigns of Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. "That's fine… but let's not forget that the House impeached President Clinton and in fact Democrats then picked up seats in a midterm basically around this issue. So, let's learn from history here and stick to policy."
Gidley also noted that for all the fire and brimstone social conservatives rained down on Bill Clinton in the '90s over his infidelity, Huckabee, who stands poised to be the religious right's standard-bearer in 2016 if he decides to run again, has declined to join the Lewinsky pile-on. "Huckabee says all the time, 'You say what you want to about the Clintons, but they stayed married.' Here we are, the party that promotes marriage as a covenant between man, woman, and God… and there are a lot of Republicans who have gotten divorces since then, while Bill and Hillary have stayed together."
Meanwhile, the influential conservative activist Grover Norquist cautioned his fellow Republicans against getting distracted from substantive critiques of Hillary Clinton's record as secretary of state.
"This is the same trick the Clintons pulled on us back in '98," he said. "We didn't campaign against the massive overspending, or anything else. We were distracted by this bright, shiny object they handed out which was Monica Lewinsky… It will be the same thing this time: 'Pay not attention to the reset of foreign policy with Russia, or Libya. Oh look, it's Hillary the victim!'"
Norquist said Republicans will have to demonstrate restraint in avoiding the topic, especially because reporters will try to bait them into talking about it.
"What will happen is the press, if we let them do the debates, will ask questions about Monica, then some Republican will mention it, then the New York Times will say, 'Oh, the Republicans are so obsessed with Monica!'" Norquist said.
"It's a constant challenge," he added. "But it's like in baseball, if they throw out a bad pitch and you swing at it, then you're an idiot."
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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