Donald Trump might be picking the wrong schoolyard fight.
His modus operandi is to bully. And it’s proved to be an ideal strategy for tying his Republican rivals in knots. But now he’s trying it on someone whose powers of political legerdemain are legendary: Bill Clinton.
The 69-year-old former president is wilier than Trump could ever dream of being. This is the man who hung the 1995-96 government shutdown around the neck of his chief political adversary, House Speaker Newt Gingrich. A formidable huckster in his own right, Gingrich was the It Boy of conservatism and the leader of an ascendant “Republican Revolution,” but after losing his budget showdown with Clinton, his career went into permanent eclipse.
Gingrich’s oafish understudies then mounted an ill-advised impeachment campaign against Clinton, which only burnished the president’s credentials as a victim of partisan fanaticism.
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Trump, by contrast, is a cad whose vulgarity and brutishness are given cover by the fact that those very qualities are cheered by a large portion of the Republican base. He’s making the P.T. Barnum bet on the Republican electorate, and so far it’s paying off.
In recent days, Trump has pounced on Hillary Clinton’s husband, in particular his record of cheating, as a new stratagem to upend her campaign. On Twitter, he asserted: “If Hillary thinks she can unleash her husband, with his terrible record of women abuse, while playing the women’s card on me, she’s wrong!”
But this only underscores another difference between Bill Clinton and Donald Trump: The former president’s record on so-called women’s issues is stellar. He appointed the first women to become U.S. attorney general and secretary of state, added Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the U.S. Supreme Court and signed the Violence Against Women Act, along with other measures that benefited women.
That’s the lesson of the Clinton White House. Slick Willie was capable of being unfaithful to his wife — in ways that disgusted women and men everywhere — and yet he also acted with foresight and responsibility in formulating policies that women care deeply about. “Compartmentalizing” is the word pundits used to describe this seeming paradox. But in fact it’s a common enough trait in political figures: Their public service is distinct from their private lives.
It is highly doubtful that Trump has the same ability. His almost cartoonish narcissism results in everything becoming personal. Challenge him in the most tentative way and he’s your enemy. And if you happen to be a woman, get ready for the most juvenile of sexist taunts.
Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly learned that lesson on live TV. During the first Republican presidential primary debate, she pressed Trump on comments he had made about women in the past, among other issues. He responded over the next several days with a peevish onslaught that culminated in a crude suggestion that Kelly had been menstruating.
Every savvy and ambitious woman in America knows that scenario. Tick off a powerful man and wait for the backlash. The more out-gunned the man is intellectually, the viler the putdown you can expect.
References to women’s menstrual cycles or their use of a toilet — all part of Trump’s charm offensive — are not the way to win female votes, Republican or Democratic. Women are more than half of the population and they vote in higher percentages than men. Our vote matters. And it’s not just the stereotypical issues that move women; we care about education, equal pay and health care policy.
If Trump hopes to pull himself out of the verbal gutter and address female voters, he’s going to have to start talking real policy. But that brings up a third key difference between him and the Clintons.
Bill and Hillary have long, long records of formulating, enacting and defending policies. They’re not records of unqualified success or popularity, to be sure. But there is not a policy area in American government in which they have not taken a leading role at the highest level.
Trump, when he has attempted even the roughest outline of a policy, has proved to be a charlatan. He’d like to claim that Hillary Clinton is using her gender to sell herself, but she doesn’t have to. Her chops dwarf those of anyone the Republican Party can stand against her. That is what she will run on.
If the GOP chooses Trump as the nominee, the general election will be a referendum on him — not on Hillary, as Republican strategists might wish it to be.
So let him tear into Bill and Hillary in any way he likes. The smart money, as always, is on the Clintons.