WASHINGTON – The long-running drama of Hillary Clinton’s marriage — her husband’s infidelity and how she dealt with it — is back as a subtext in this year’s U.S. presidential race.
The issue has a new, sharper edge this time: Voters are processing old events in an era of heightened concern about sexual assault and after Republican Donald Trump characterized Democratic candidate Clinton as an “enabler” of her husband’s indiscretions and alleged that she had helped to discredit his accusers.
Both Clintons have tried not to engage, each uttering the identical “I have no response” when questioned separately about the matter.
And plenty of Americans are right there with them on that. Bring up Bill’s behavior and Hillary’s coping techniques and they suddenly become monosyllabic and start glancing around for the exits.
But Hillary Clinton has dropped the question squarely in Americans’ laps just days before the Iowa caucuses Monday open voting in the 2016 campaign.
“I’m going to let the American voters decide what’s relevant and what’s not relevant,” she said when asked about Trump’s accusations during a recent Democratic debate.
It is no small matter for Clinton, who draws a lopsided share of her support from female voters and for decades has made advocacy for women a big part of her persona.
It is especially important as she tries to attract a generation of younger women who only learned about the Clinton presidency in history class and have come of age in a time of different attitudes toward sexual harassment and abuse.
Clinton’s Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders, complains about being asked about the Clintons’ “personal stuff” when he would rather focus on issues. But he has also made clear he considers Bill Clinton’s past behavior “totally, totally, totally disgraceful and unacceptable.”
Interviews with dozens of potential voters around the country reveal strong and opposing views about how — and whether — Clinton should be measured by how she dealt with her husband’s behavior.
“The personal stuff is irrelevant,” pronounces Brian Brown, a 56-year-old former professor and Democrat from Antrim, New Hampshire.
“I don’t like how she swept it under the rug, but then again, you don’t know what goes on behind the scenes,” said Jeff Daignault, a 46-year-old independent from Largo, Florida.
“Hillary was an accomplice,” said Amy Stricker, a 57-year-old conservative from Rochester Hills, Michigan.
Clinton’s campaign has rejected the notion that she was actively involved in aggressive efforts by her husband’s presidential campaign and the Clinton White House to discredit women who claimed to have had affairs with her husband or to have been sexually assaulted by him. “These are attempts to draw Hillary Clinton into decades-old allegations through fabrications that are unsubstantiated,” campaign spokesman Brian Fallon said Wednesday. “Hillary Clinton has spent her whole life standing up for women, and charges to the contrary are grossly unfair and untrue.”
Allegations of womanizing, extramarital affairs and abuse have trickled out over the course of Bill Clinton’s political life, including a wave of what his campaign referred to as “bimbo eruptions” when he first ran for president in 1992 and still more allegations of misbehavior after investigators in 1997 started looking into Clinton’s sexual encounters with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Clinton was impeached over the Lewinsky affair. In 1998, he agreed to an $850,000 settlement with state worker Paula Jones, who had accused Clinton of exposing himself and making indecent propositions when Clinton was Arkansas governor. The settlement included no apology or admission of guilt.