Bringing Bill Clinton's ‘Victims’ to the Presidential Debate Backfired on Donald Trump

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump sits with two Bill Clinton accusers, Paula Jones, right, and Kathy Shelton, in a hotel conference room ahead of the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, on October 9. Mike Segar/Reuters

Laura Ingraham was elated. After the second presidential debate had ended, the conservative author and radio talk show host appeared on Fox News Channel’s Hannity to laud Donald Trump’s “decisive and frankly masterful performance.” She added: “He hit her in a way that not a single Republican in the last 30 years has been able to lay a glove on the Clintons. We’ve been waiting for this moment for someone to take on the Clintons face to face, and he did it.”

For the most hardcore Clinton-hating veterans of the 1990s—like Ingraham, who reportedly helped prepare Trump for primary debates, and David Bossie, the deputy Trump campaign manager, president of Citizens United and Whitewater figure—Sunday night was a kind of catharsis: the chance to put those who’ve accused Bill Clinton of rape and harassment on a national stage within feet of the former president and his wife, whom they accuse of enabling him. The Trump campaign’s plans to put the accusers in the Trump family box, setting up a face-to-face confrontation with the former president, was quashed at the last minute when Frank Fahrenkopf, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a co-chairman of the presidential debates, threatened to eject the women if they were placed in the box reserved for family.

Trump failed in his attempt to shift the subject from his depraved sexual comments on the already infamous Access Hollywood recording to allegations against Bill Clinton from 20 and 30 years ago.

"If you look at Bill Clinton, far worse. Mine were words, and his was action. What he's done to women, there's never been anybody in the history of politics in this nation that's been so abusive to women," Trump said.

The Trump line of attack was doomed for a few reasons. First, campaigns are driven by new information. That sounds axiomatic, but it’s true: Revelations about Trump’s taxes, his foreign business entanglements, breaking the U.S. embargo against Cuba and using Chinese steel in his buildings landed with force; reviving old allegations can never have the same impact. The allegations against the Clintons are old and have been ventilated for a long time.

Consider the Juanita Broaddrick allegation that Bill Clinton raped her in 1978, close to 40 years ago. She aired the charge in 1999. It was broadcast on national television, and it was examined by Whitewater Special Counsel Kenneth Starr. (Broaddrick signed an affidavit saying that she had not been assaulted and then recanted it.) The charge obviously carries weight with Clinton critics and even some sympathetic to the Clintons, but it’s not new—and new is what counts in politics.

In courtroom dramas, there’s a familiar trope: the dramatic moment when a newly discovered witness is called to the stand. The prosecution or defense objects and tries to get the judge to bar the testimony. It fails, and the momentum of the case is reversed. The women flown to St. Louis were not new witnesses. Paula Jones has been in the public eye for more than 20 years. It was the question of whether Hillary Clinton lied in her harassment suit against him that led to his impeachment, the most drawn-out, well-covered event of the 1990s. Jones was paid a settlement of more than $800,000. Her presence in St. Louis at the second presidential debate didn’t add anything new to the national conversation. It was long ago factored in to voters’ assessments of the Clintons.

Trump muffed what might have been new information to some: the account of Hillary Clinton’s legal representation of an accused child rapist. Hillary Clinton was appointed to the case as a public defender in 1975, when she was 27. She tried to get out of her service, but the judge compelled her to represent the man. Listening to Trump, you might have thought that Bill Clinton had been accused of child rape, but of course he wasn’t. Trump accused Hillary Clinton of laughing at the victim in the 1980s, when her comments were recorded as part of an interview with a prominent Arkansas journalist. But Politifact makes it clear that Hillary Clinton, if she was laughing on the tape, was mocking the efficacy of polygraphs, which her client passed. It was part of a Trump strategy of alluding to Clinton wrongdoing, some of which was effective—his mention of deleted emails—and some of which was not (allusions to Sidney Blumenthal, whom most Americans don’t know is a longtime Clinton adviser and friend, even after Trump mentioned him in the first debate).

The accusations of sexual violence were not only old but also had proved to be of no use in the past. Impeachment backfired on the Republicans. In an unprecedented embarrassment, the GOP actually lost House seats in 1998 following Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Considering it was the sixth year of his presidency, a time when two-term presidents nearly always lose seats, it was all the more shocking. Trump’s trying to relitigate those issues decades later—almost 16 years after Bill Clinton had left office and Hillary Clinton was elected to the U.S. Senate—may have fanned the anger of Ingraham and Bossie, but it made no sense in trying to lure new voters to the Trump fold. If Trump thought the mere presence of the women would rattle Hillary Clinton, that was a mistake. As Trump himself said when the candidates were asked to cite a good quality in each other, she’s a fighter. Hillary Clinton was not going to let a much-anticipated airing of old incidents thwart her march to the White House. Indeed, one of the accusations against Hillary Clinton was that she intimidated these women. So why expect her to be intimidated by them?

To Trump’s credit, his delivery was measured when he discussed the sex-and-violence allegations. And he eschewed what could have been even more cringeworthy moments—addressing Bill Clinton directly or repeatedly coming back to the allegations of violence repeatedly instead of choosing, as he did, to air them all at once. But Trump’s calm tone couldn’t reassure voters about his temperament. Only a more fulsome apology for his comments on the Access Hollywood tape could have helped him, and he didn’t provide that with only a casual dismissal of his words as locker room talk.

For 25 years, since Bill Clinton announced his candidacy for president, the overreach of his opponents has been his secret weapon. The same is true for his wife, who will almost certainly be the next commander in chief. Recognizing which thrusts draw blood and which don’t is a sign of self-awareness. Ingraham may think Trump gave a “decisive and frankly masterful performance,” but most Republicans, as evidenced by the unease with which the party is coping with instead of celebrating its nominee, seem to think otherwise. “We’ve been waiting for this moment,” said Ingraham. The problem is the subject of her sentence: The election isn’t about the agita of Clinton haters but about voters who care about things other than old charges.