Can Monica Lewinsky still harm the Clintons?
That was the immediate question in politics after Lewinsky came out of semi-seclusion to write a lengthy article for Vanity Fair magazine.
Lewinsky’s hesitant steps back into the spotlight were an instant reminder of the unseemly side of the Clinton presidency, something that could complicate a potential 2016 White House bid for former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonJudd Apatow compares Trump election to rape in stand-up Yes, it's war: How the media should fight back against Trump Clinton to Trump: Speak out against anti-Semitic attacks now MORE.
It’s probably too soon to tell for sure, but even some Republican operatives admit it’s possible Lewinsky’s return will be greeted with a shrug.
“It’s another reminder of the sort of baggage that surrounds the Clintons,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. “Is this helpful to them? No, of course it isn’t. It could force [Hillary Clinton] to answer questions about the marriage and Bill’s past sins, and that’s obviously not an area they want to get into.”
Yet Mackowiak also said that it was “dicey” for conservatives to mount a full-on attack on Hillary Clinton over a 16-year-old scandal for which she was not, by any reasonable measure, responsible.
“The Monica Lewinsky episode was a minefield for Republicans in 1998, and it is going to be a minefield for Republicans who raise it now,” agreed another GOP operative, Ford O’Connell, who recalled the widespread sense that President Clinton’s opponents overplayed their hand on the scandal.
Some Republicans signaled even before Lewinsky’s reappearance that they would make it an issue.
Earlier this year, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) pushed back on accusations that his party was mounting a “war on women” by citing the scandal, in which President Clinton received oral sex from Lewinsky, who was a White House intern at the time.
“He took advantage of a girl that was 20 years old and an intern in his office,” Paul said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in January. “There is no excuse for that, and it is predatory behavior.”
Paul went on to say that it was “hard to separate” Bill and Hillary Clinton, and added, “It’s not Hillary’s fault, but it is a factor in judging Bill Clinton and history.”
Paul’s words received some pushback from Lewinsky in her Vanity Fair article.
She complained that he had “managed to drag me into the pre-election muck” and “put me back into the unwanted spotlight.”
Her reaction is just one example of the risks for Republicans in seeking to make hay on the controversy.
Another is that the whole affair, though still sharp in the minds of those who remember it, is ancient history to a sizable slab of the electorate.
Many other voters will be too young to remember the scandal. Even the top end of the 18-34 demographic were high school sophomores when the story broke.
In the intervening years, there have also been a number of other political scandals which outstripped the Lewinsky story’s sordidness.
Then-Rep. Anthony Weiner's (D-N.Y) internet photo misadventures come to mind, as does Sen. David Vitter’s (R-La.) admission of “a very serious sin in my past” after his phone number turned up in the records of the “D.C. Madam”, Deborah Jeane Palfrey.
The Clintons are “increasingly in large, if not good, company,” in having been caught up in a sex scandal, said Juliet Williams, a UCLA professor and a co-editor of Public Affairs: Politics in the Age of Sex Scandals.
“The presumption that prevailed in the ‘90s, which is that one could not survive this kind of reputational taint; we now know that’s simply not true,” Williams added.
But that doesn’t stop people, including Lewinsky herself, from wondering how the matter might play if Clinton runs for the White House in 2016, as is now widely expected.
“When I hear of Hillary’s prospective candidacy, I cannot help but fear the next wave of paparazzi, the next wave of ‘Where is she now?’ stories, the next reference to me in Fox News’s coverage of the primaries,” Lewinksy wrote in Vanity Fair.
Lewinsky might be right that a Hillary 2016 run would inevitably draw more attention down upon her. But, in surmising that she would be used heavily by Clinton’s enemies, she may be misjudging the political environment.
O’Connell cautioned his fellow Republicans that strong attacks on the matter could harm the party among a demographic with which it already struggles.
“If you go at this too hard, you are going to cause unmarried women to have more sympathy for the Clintons than they otherwise would do,” he said.
The Clintons also have time on their side.
Lewinsky has come back on the scene with well over two years left before the next presidential election. The Vanity Fair article made such a splash in part because, according to Lewinsky, she had refused all major interview requests for a decade.
It is far from clear that the former intern wants to negatively affect a Hillary Clinton presidential bid. At one point in the article, she refers to herself as a “conscientious Democrat.” But, even if she did want some kind of revenge, it might be hard to roil the waters again in the way she did last week.
“It certainly raise something that is very uncomfortable for [the Clintons] one more time,” said Alison Dagnes, a professor at Shippensburg University and the author of Sex Scandals in American Politics.
“But I think, if there is some good news for them, it’s that it takes the air out a story. It gets it exorcised and allows everyone to get tired of it.”
For the Clintons, that can’t come a moment too soon.