Nearly a month ago, I wrote “There’s an Awakening Against Sexual Assault, So Why Is No One Talking About Bill Clinton?” It took long enough, but there is a growing chorus of voices on the left demanding that Clinton’s crimes not be ignored. The disturbing allegations against Roy Moore appear to have finally broken the resolve of Democrats who seem be not only tired of defending the Clintons but genuinely coming to terms with how the charges of hypocrisy of defending Bill hinder progress in combatting sexual assault.
Liberal contrarian Caitlin Flanagan has an essay in the Atlantic where she reviews the regrettable feminist response to Clinton. It is not a pleasant trip down memory lane. After the last few months, reviewing Gloria Steinem’s infamous 1998 New York Times op-ed where she casts doubt on Clinton’s accusers and all but excuses his behavior is hard to stomach.
On Friday, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes sent out a tweet that got a lot of people talking:
As gross and cynical and hypocrtical as the right's "what about Bill Clinton" stuff is, it's also true that Democrats and the center left are overdue for a real reckoning with the allegations against him.— Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) November 10, 2017
It’s undoubtedly true that there are pockets of the fever swamp invested in defending Moore, and it’s pretty gross and cynical. The hypocritical charge is a bit more complicated, I think.
For one thing, the defenses liberals mounted of Bill Clinton were supremely hypocritical even 20 years. It’s not as if the “Weinstein moment” has completely lifted the wool over everyone’s eyes. The defenses of Clinton came just a few years after liberals were rending their garments over the sexual harassment accusations made against Clarence Thomas. At the time, it was openly argued that Clinton’s crimes against individual women, unlike Thomas’s, could be overlooked because Clinton favored policies that served a liberal feminist agenda. (Never mind that huge swaths of American women have always rejected much of this agenda outright.)
In fact, on Meet the Press in 1998 Anita Hill herself made this argument:
For President Clinton, he’s going to suffer a disadvantage because it is now that these allegations are coming out, during his presidency. But I think what Ms. Steinem also says is we have to look at the totality of the presidency and how has he been on women’s issues generally? Is he our best bet, notwithstanding some behavior that we might dislike? I don’t think that most women have come to the point where we’ve said, ‘Well this is so bad that even if he is better on the bigger issues, we can’t have him as president.’
At the same time, what happened to the GOP in the wake of the Clinton impeachment hearings? Well, Speaker Newt Gingrich was having an affair that came out later, and his intended replacement, Bob Livingston, resigned on the day of the impeachment vote because of his own infidelity issues. And yet, Clinton stayed in office and refused calls to resign with the blessing of the left. It’s hard to argue that this astonishing precedent hasn’t gone a long way toward having a profoundly negative impact on the behavior of those in power, as well as conditioning voters to tolerate the intolerable. It’s hard to imagine Trump getting elected after the being caught on tape talking about sexually assaulting women or anyone defending Roy Moore, if Clinton hadn’t established the template for it.
Further, the calls to reckon with Bill Clinton aren’t exactly free from their own regrettable partisan motivations. In an interesting New York Times piece, liberal opinion journalist Michelle Goldberg . However, Goldberg proceeds to struggle with conceding that being liberal doesn’t automatically make one morally superior:
Yet despite the right’s evident bad faith, I agree with Hayes. In this #MeToo moment, when we’re reassessing decades of male misbehavior and turning open secrets into exposes, we should look clearly at the credible evidence that Juanita Broaddrick told the truth when she accused Clinton of raping her. But revisiting the Clinton scandals in light of today’s politics is complicated as well as painful. Democrats are guilty of apologizing for Clinton when they shouldn’t have. At the same time, looking back at the smear campaign against the Clintons shows we can’t treat the feminist injunction to “believe women” as absolute.
Writing at Crooked.com, Brian Beutler warns that in future elections, right-wing propaganda will exploit the progressive commitment to always taking sexual abuse charges seriously. It’s easy to imagine an outlet like Breitbart leveraging the “believe women” rallying cry to force mainstream media coverage of dubious accusations.
I am having a hard time swallowing the idea that the right is somehow more prone to weaponizing fake charges around sexism and sexual assault, when you consider how many progressive journalists turned Mitt Romney into history’s greatest monster for compiling “binders full of women” out of an earnest desire to promote more of them in the workforce.
Never mind that the two greatest examples of fake rape accusations in recent years, Rolling Stone’s fabricated expose of a gang rape at the University of Virginia and the Duke lacrosse scandal, both dovetailed a bit too conveniently with larger feminist political campaign to enact sweeping federal policies that run roughshod over the rights of the accused and had the president of the United States repeatedly quoting ridiculous statistics asserting “young American college women are raped at a rate similar to women in Congo, where rape has been used as a weapon of war.”
There is no need to make an issue this heinous a partisan matter. It’s easy to suggest that liberal America is ideologically defective for taking 20 years to even begin to stop making excuses for Bill Clinton. Instead, let’s just say any progress here is better late than never, and leave it at that.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard