Byron York: Why Hillary’s past is fair game in the presidential race
There’s a debate going on about Hillary Clinton’s past. If she runs for president in 2016, should Republicans reach back to the scandals of her years as first lady? Or should they focus on more recent times, especially her tenure as secretary of state, to build a case against her?
The GOP doesn’t have to choose. Of course Clinton’s recent experiences are relevant to a presidential run. But so are her actions in the ’90s, the ’80s and even the ’70s. It’s not ancient history; it reveals something about who Clinton was and still is. And re-examining her past is entirely consistent with practices in recent campaigns.
In the 2012 presidential race, for example, many in the press were very interested in business deals Mitt Romney made in the 1980s. In the 2004 race, many journalists were even more interested in what George W. Bush did with the Texas Air National Guard in 1968, as well as what John Kerry did in Vietnam that same year. And in 2000, a lot of journalists invested a lot of time trying to find proof that Bush had used cocaine three decades earlier.
So by the standards set in coverage of other candidates, Clinton’s past is not too far past.
That’s especially true because there will be millions of young voters in 2016 who know little about the Clinton White House. Americans who had not even been born when Bill Clinton first took the oath of office in 1993 will be eligible to vote two years from now. They need to know that Hillary Clinton has been more than secretary of state.
Those voters need to know, for starters, that Mrs. Clinton once displayed incredible investment skills. In 1978 and 1979, when her husband was attorney general and then governor of Arkansas, she enlisted the help of a well-connected crony to invest $1,000 in the highly volatile and risky cattle futures market. Several months later, she walked away with $100,000 — a nearly 10,000 percent profit. Cynics thought the well-connected crony who executed the trades might have paid her the profits from good trades and absorbed the losses from bad ones, but Mrs. Clinton insisted that she developed her investing acumen by reading The Wall Street Journal.
New voters also need to learn about Mrs. Clinton’s checkered history as a lawyer and the game of hide-and-seek she played with federal prosecutors who subpoenaed her old billing records as part of the Whitewater investigation. After two years of defying subpoenas and not producing the records, she suddenly claimed that they had been in a closet in the White House residence all along.
New voters also need to learn about Mrs. Clinton’s purge of the White House travel office, which was done to steer business to another Clinton crony. There’s no doubt she directed the 1993 firings of longtime White House employees although she testified under oath that she did not. Years later, prosecutors concluded that “Mrs. Clinton’s sworn testimony ... is factually inaccurate.”
Finally, there is the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has somewhat clumsily brought into the political discussion. In 1998 and 1999, Mrs. Clinton essentially played two roles, that of wronged wife and that of strategist and spokeswoman in a concerted White House attack-the-prosecutor misdirection campaign.
The reason we now have the phrase “vast right-wing conspiracy” is that Mrs. Clinton unveiled it shortly after the scandal broke, in a mostly successful effort to divert press attention away from President Clinton’s behavior and instead to independent counsel Kenneth Starr and some anti-Clinton groups.
“The great story here, for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it, is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president,” Clinton said on the “Today” show in January 1998. What followed was a long, hyperventilating and mostly irrelevant diversion campaign — Look! Ken Starr was once a tobacco lawyer! — that would be a model for guilty defendants everywhere.
Mrs. Clinton’s past was an issue in 2000 when (while still first lady) she ran for a Senate seat from New York. Obviously, it didn’t keep her from winning in that Democratic state.
Even in a national contest, a focus on Mrs. Clinton’s past likely won’t decide the outcome any more than Romney’s time at Bain Capital decided the 2012 race. But it will help define Mrs. Clinton for millions of voters who weren’t around or weren’t paying attention in the 1990s. They need to know. And that’s what campaigns are for.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.