Op-Ed

Whitewater? Vince Foster? For Trump, it's back to the '90s

Whitewater? Vince Foster? Juanita Broaddrick? Donald Trump appears to have tumbled into a time warp. He wants to revive the Arkansas scandals of the 1990s, when many Republicans thought impeaching then-President Bill Clinton was a sure path to victory. (It wasn’t.) Trump has turned an old political bromide on its head. For the moment, his campaign isn’t about the future; it’s about the past.

In interviews, speeches and a brutal campaign video, Trump has cited the often-lurid controversies of the Bill Clinton administration as a reason voters shouldn’t put Hillary Clinton in the White House.

Clinton “was the biggest abuser of women, as a politician, in the history of our country,” Trump said in one interview.

“Hillary was an enabler,” he added.

“Whether it’s Whitewater or whether it’s Vince or whether it’s Benghazi, it’s always a mess with Hillary.” 

(For younger readers, Whitewater was a land deal in Arkansas in which Bill and Hillary Clinton were investors; one of their partners was convicted of fraud in 1997, but the Clintons were not found at fault. Vince Foster was a law partner of Hillary Clinton who killed himself in 1993; conspiracy theorists, including Trump, suggest -- without evidence -- that he might have been murdered. Juanita Broaddrick is an Arkansas woman who says Bill Clinton raped her in 1978; Clinton’s lawyer has denied the allegation, which Broaddrick did not report to police at the time. And yes, Congress impeached then-President Clinton; in 1999, the Senate held a month-long trial and acquitted him.)

Trump’s resurrection of tales from the Clinton crypt may seem bizarre. After all, Bill Clinton has been one of the most admired men in America since his presidency ended in an economic boom 15 years ago. He’s far more popular than either Trump or his wife.

Other Republican politicians have been scratching their heads.

“It’s something I might not have done,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who led the impeachment effort in 1998, told the Washington Post. “But he operates on such a different model that I’d be very cautious about rendering judgment.”

Trump claims he’s raking up ancient muck because he thinks he has been forced to. “It’s only retribution for what [Hillary Clinton] said,” he told CNN. “She is playing the woman’s card to the hilt.”

But as often with Trump, there’s an element of strategy at work here, too.

Throwing allegations at Clinton, even indiscriminately, helps reinforce the label he’s trying to pin on the presumptive Democratic nominee: “Crooked Hillary.”

If Trump can get the media and voters to focus on Clinton’s problems, real or imaginary, that helps counter her negative messages about him -- his past statements about women or his refusal to release his tax returns. Reviving old controversies also gets in the way of Democrats’ portrayal of the 1990s as a golden age.

 “If this becomes a race about which one would be the worse president, that’s to Trump’s advantage,” GOP strategist David Winston told me. “It puts him on an equal footing with Clinton.”

Clinton advisers, for their part, think Trump is “trolling” – trying to provoke Bill or Hillary Clinton into losing their tempers and responding in kind, thereby turning this sideshow into the main event.

“Any response would make it into a huge story,” one Clinton adviser told me.

Fully cognizant of that fact, Hillary Clinton and her husband have stolidly refused to directly counter Trump’s nastiest charges (“predator,” “enabler”). There’s probably been plenty of lip-biting in the Clinton household these days.

When the Clintons do attack Trump, they focus mostly on what they call his “dangerous and divisive” statements and his proposals. They say he’s “an unqualified loose cannon” but leave his marital history -- which includes past allegations of adultery and spousal rape – off the table. And in this election, that qualifies as the high road.

Indeed, Clinton is trying — really she is — to make this contest about something other than bluster. She has already been talking at length – sometimes great length – about the policies she proposes to make the country better. The problem is, those speeches haven’t earned her much live coverage on cable television; Trump’s unscripted news conferences beat her on that count every time.

But I’ll boldly offer a scrap of good news: The scandals of the 1990s won’t remain a novelty forever. They’re already old – and pretty soon, they’re going to seem old again. One of these days, possibly on a debate stage, even Trump will have to talk at length about policies and programs – about the economy, and healthcare and foreign policy. But only, it appears, once he has exhausted every other topic.

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

Twitter: @DoyleMcManus

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