On the eve of the second 2016 presidential debate – in town hall format – Donald Trump is once again threatening to use the matchup to blame Hillary Clinton for the past sins of her husband. He first raised the issue months ago when he still had primary opponents — charging Hillary with being an “enabler” to Bill’s sexual shenanigans while in office. In the past couple of weeks he has reprised the accusation, no doubt to try and revive his failing candidacy.
By casting Hillary as an enabler, Trump has moved the discussion beyond mere association into the realm of personal responsibility for one’s political forbears. Besides the fact that voters fear Trump’s finger on the red button more than a 20-year-old tawdry story involving his opponent’s spouse, the question comes down to this: Should a candidate share credit or blame for the past sins and successes of a family member in the White House? (Trump also blamed Jeb Bush for bro’s big boo-boo in Iraq.)
Fair or not fair? Clearly not fair when it comes to the enabler charge. We don’t know what Hillary knew and when she knew it. We do know when she did find out she held her head high and tried to minimize the damage to save her husband’s career and probably their marriage to boot. It’s a path countless women have taken for centuries under similar circumstances. And “by the way” (as Trump is fond of saying) there’s more than a little sexism here. Betty Ford had a drug and alcohol problem when Gerald Ford was in the White House. No one ever called him an enabler.
But that’s all really off the point. Bill Clinton is not running–Hillary Clinton is. Besides being irrelevant to her campaign, his wandering eye is irrelevant to her ability to govern and the country’s well being. If sexual escapades counted, we’d have to downgrade the presidencies of at least half the guys who have served, from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Dwight Eisenhower to JFK — and implicate their wives in the bargain. So maybe Eleanor, Mamie, Jackie and Hillary can all be blamed for picking imperfect partners, but surely not for their husbands’ successes or failures at leading the country.
When asked in a public forum right after Trump’s initial “enabler” attack, Bernie Sanders put it best. “Look, Hillary Clinton is not Bill Clinton. What Bill Clinton did, I think we can all acknowledge, was totally, totally, totally disgraceful and unacceptable,” the Vermont senator told a crowd at an Iowa town hall. “But I am running against Hillary Clinton. I’m not running against Bill Clinton. I believe what we need to do as a nation is focusing on issues facing this country. So what I am doing is contrasting my record with Hillary Clinton’s record, and they are very, very different records. . .”
Sanders was right and Trump could do the country a favor by taking his advice and getting to the real issues, assuming he knows what any of them are. Hillary is woman enough to take credit or blame on her own record, which is extensive. She has been far more straightforward than Trump about what she’s for, what she’s against, and why she changed her mind on her vote for the Iraq war and support for the Trans Pacific Partnership. It’s fair to accept or reject both her record and her explanations, as we certainly should for Trump. But leave Bill Clinton out of it.