Opinion

Why Trump Is Smart to Drag Bill Clinton's Past Into the Race

Sometimes, it pays to act like a kid

Donald Trump is trying to make an issue of Bill Clinton's history with women. (Photo By Al Drago/Roll Call)

“She's been the total enabler ,” Donald Trump declared of Hillary Clinton at a recent rally. “She would go after these women and destroy their lives.”

It didn’t end there. “Hey, look, [Bill Clinton] was the biggest abuser of women, as a politician, in the history of our country,” Trump told Chris Cuomo on CNN’s New Day on Monday . “He was impeached.”
 
The chattering classes were not impressed. Why should Hillary have to answer for her husband's decades-old sins, some asked. Besides, is a thrice-married Donald Trump really the best messenger for this attack?
 
Others assumed it was a mistake made by a childish and undisciplined man who simply has a problem with powerful women. After all, he currently faces a huge gender gap. Why would he want to do anything that might make matters worse? [Related: Cruz Helped Create the Monster That Devoured Him]

A masterful move

  Having studied Donald Trump these past several months as he outmaneuvered his opponents in the Republican primary, I’m less likely to dismiss his moves as foolish, and perhaps more inclined to assume they are intentional, strategic and even masterful. This particular gambit may or may not work (the general electorate is vastly different from the GOP primary electorate), but I suspect he knows what he's doing.
[Related: No Bandwidth for Outrage]
 
First, Donald Trump likes to engage in psychological warfare. And the best way to get under someone’s skin is to attack their family. Whether it was Jeb Bush’s wife or Ted Cruz’s dad, who Trump suggested might have been involved in the JFK assassination, Trump stoops to levels few are willing to stoop to. And often, this elicits an unwise overreaction.
 
Consider this example: On the eve of his big loss in Indiana, Cruz confronted Donald Trump protesters at a rally. It was a disastrous decision. And the day of the Indiana primary, Cruz let loose on a rant, calling Trump a “pathological liar.” Would that have happened absent the silly attack on Rafael Cruz?
 
This sort of thing isn't entirely new, though it is rarely the candidate who engages in this behavior. I'm reminded of how GOP dirty-trickster Lee Atwater helped George H.W. Bush defeat Bob Dole in the 1988 GOP primary, using similar techniques. As author John Brady recounts in his book, “Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater,” Atwater had a theory that “adults could be divided into two groups: the overly mature and the childlike.” “The overly mature,” Brady continues, “are inflexible and over-serious, making them highly vulnerable in politics, particularly in the age of television. [Bob] Dole was the mature type, Atwater the child.”
[Related: Trump's Authoritarian Tendencies Echo Cheney's]
 
“It didn’t take Atwater much research to see that Dole was hypersensitive about attacks on his wife. Replaying old charges against her in Iowa, Atwater was able to get under the senator’s skin. He kept Dole’s blood boiling with the letter that accused him of starting the dirty campaigning, and he upped the pressure with the perfectly timed ad that mocked Dole’s record. Although Atwater was the one pushing buttons, Dole’s outburst to [Tom] Brokaw — his message to Bush was 'Stop lying about my record!' — focused all the attention on him. … Atwater, a genius at one-upmanship, now stood back. Dole could only respond with more sourness, compounding the problem and leading to electoral suicide.” Hillary, like Dole, is an adult. Trump, like Atwater, is a kid.
 
Now, imagine you are the Clintons. Do you want some childish joker bringing up your past personal peccadilloes? No, but it’s not about hurting the Clintons politically; it’s about hurting them personally — and trying to get them to commit an error in response.
 
Hillary might not even be the primary target. It might be Bill. Bill Clinton is a master politician when he’s fighting for himself, but as we’ve seen in the past, this skill doesn’t seem to be transferable when he’s helping his wife campaign. There is a chance that Trump may be trying to get under his skin — trying to goad him into making mistakes.
 

Feeding the beast

  That’s not the only reason Trump might be employing what looks, at first blush, to be an irrational strategy. Donald Trump is all about owning the news cycle. He likes to feed the beast, and we like to be fed. During the primary, it really didn’t matter whether the news was good or bad for Trump — it was almost always about something Trump said or did. Along those lines, I was on cable news for an hour Monday night, and guess what we spent about 50 minutes discussing? You guessed it, Donald Trump’s attacks on Bill and Hillary. But not just that — we were treated to a media package about Bill Clinton’s past misdeeds. We took a walk down memory lane with names like Kathleen Willey, Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick, Gennifer Flowers, and Monica Lewinsky — women who are suddenly (like Prince and O.J. Simpson) back in the news. Now, this might not mean much to you and me, but for a generation of millennials who didn’t live through the scandals of the 1990s — who now live in a time when allegations of sexual harassment are taken more seriously than ever — this is not necessarily something the Clintons enjoy seeing recycled. Another theory simply is that Trump now sees his first essential task to be unifying the Republican Party around him. And while he is not particularly adept at extending an olive branch, attacking the Clintons may be a pretty good way to excite and unite Republicans. Even those who don’t care much for Donald Trump might relish having a nominee who’s not afraid to go on the offense for once. Lastly, Trump may see this as simply a warning signal to the Clintons — putting them on notice that “playing the woman card” or attacking him as a misogynist will elicit a fast and fierce response.  Trump is a more formidable adversary than his opponents may appreciate. Just when it looks like he’s doing something stupid — playing right into your hands — you wake up to discover he has pulled off a miracle. The Clintons had better take him seriously. Roll Call columnist Matt K. Lewis is a senior contributor at the Daily Caller and the author of “Too Dumb to Fail.”

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