Friday, April 27, 2012

Edwards and the Clinton experience

Ryan Lizza tweets:
I don't really understand the over-the-top contempt/hatred for John Edwards from same people who defended/have forgiven B. Clinton for same.
Jonathan Bernstein suggests that there are important differences based on the concept of representation. Clinton was known to be a philanderer and basically just promised to put that aside during his presidency. Edwards, conversely, made family and loyalty to his ill wife a central part of his campaign. His betrayal of Elizabeth was a betrayal of the whole purpose of his campaign.

Let me suggest another important distinction: In 2008, Democrats had the experience of 1998 to reflect upon; in 1998, they did not.

In terms of martial problems, Clinton's nomination and election in 1992 were highly unusual. Certainly, we'd had philandering presidents and presidential candidates previously, but rarely had it been such an open issue in the middle of a contentious nomination battle, and almost never had the purported philanderer not only not dropped out of the race (a la Gary Hart 1988), but actually won the nomination. Having dealt with the issue in the winter probably, as Jon suggests, helped to inoculate Clinton for the fall campaign. And yes, there was an implicit deal that active Democrats would not make a big deal out of this issue and that Clinton, in turn, would keep his pants zipped while in the White House.

Now, when Lewinsky's name became public, yes, Democrats ultimately defended Clinton. The Republicans made that easy by determining that oral sex was an impeachable offense. (Yeah, perjury, sure.) But before the impeachment hearings started ramping up, Democrats, particularly the active Clinton loyalists, were hugely pissed at him. He had broken the contract. They'd taken a chance on him but he'd betrayed their trust. Everything they'd worked for for six years was now in jeopardy, and now they'd have to jump into the breach again, not to elect him or his successor, not to fight for health reform or economic justice, not to protect a legacy, but to save his horny ass. Of course, they did it, and Republican overreach, combined with the fact that Clinton's presidency overall ended up looking pretty successful, made it easy for Democratic activists to ultimately defend him, maybe even to forgive him... but not to forget what happened.

So then 2008 comes around and John Edwards draws the exact wrong lesson from history. He figures that if Clinton could get away with it, so could he. But Democratic activists did not want to go through that again, not if they didn't have to. So they dropped him like a hot potato.

Now, there are some other key differences, as well. Edwards' dalliances became public after he'd already dropped out of the presidential race. No one had to defend him. He was of no value to the Democratic coalition. Yes, when your president is under attack, you defend him, even if you find his behavior disgusting. But when a failed presidential candidate is under attack? Who cares?

Related to this, Clinton already had five relatively successful years as president to point to when Lewinsky's name surfaced. Activists could rationalize, "Okay, he's a dog, but he knows how to govern." With Edwards it was more like, "Okay, he's a dog."


Rob Rushing said...

I wouldn't overlook the fact that people also felt hugely different about the wives who were being cheated on. Elizabeth Edwards was well on her way to being canonized as a saint, what with the dying of cancer with enormous grace thing, whereas Hillary elicited a lot more ambiguity. Also, it's worth remembering that while Bill got a BJ in the OO, Edwards (a) fathered a child with his mistress and, much worse, (b) denied the child was his until presented with irrefutable proof. If many Dems wanted to slap Bill Clinton for what he'd done, they felt more like punching Edwards in the mouth. Repeatedly. Bill looked like a weasel and turned out to be a weasel—Edwards looked like a nice guy, and turned out to be a real scumbag.

dmarks said...

"The Republicans made that easy by determining that oral sex was an impeachable offense."

It was more like Clinton engaged in sexual harassment of his employees as a habit. This was relevant to the Paula Jones case... and he lied about it under oath.

Seth Masket said...

Sexual harassment is a serious issue, but Republicans chose not to impeach him on that one. And indeed, much of the floor debate at the time concerned the president's example of immorality with Lewinsky -- an affair that was, however loathsome, nonetheless consensual.

dmarks said...

It also violated White House ethics rules, Clinton committed a crime by lying about it (as it was relevant in the sexual harassment situation), and the "consensual" part is rather debatable. Feminists have rightly pointed out the power relationship problem with bosses who use their underlings for sexual gratification, and this is definitely amplified when the boss is the most powerful man in the free world.

Seth Masket said...

Given Lewinsky's own descriptions of the relationship, the only way to describe that situation as harassment is to believe that any sexual contact between a male boss and a female employee is harassment. And yes, some do make that claim. But do you really want to argue that?

dmarks said...

No, it wasn't specifically harassment. But the situation was definitely relevant in regards to the Jones case.

If Clinton had kept this private and out of the workplace, and not a matter of boss-employee relations, there would have been no problem at all.

Jeremy said...

Speaking as someone who doesn't really care about either Clinton's or Edwards' indiscretions (I mean yeah, it might make them scumbags, but it doesn't affect whether I consider either of them capable of governing):

The bigger issue here, to me, is what Edwards is actually being charged with: namely, collecting illegal campaign contributions, and using campaign contributions to cover up his affair. Would Clinton have done the same? Possibly. However, as it stands, he was never charged with that crime, despite all his famous affairs. Edwards has been, and by all accounts, deserves to be punished for it. (And that punishment could add up to 30 years in prison!)

Both had consensual affairs. That was their personal business. One actually broke the law only when the opposition party made his personal business into a legal issue; the other was engaging in illegal activity from the get go.

Seth Masket said...

I don't know that I'd agree with your characterization of the Edwards indictments, Jeremy. No one disputes that some wealthy people gave Edwards money. (That's not a crime.) No one disputes that he used that money to try to cover up his affair and the resulting child. (Also not a crime.) The case against him is that the money was a campaign donation because covering up the affair and child was a goal of Edwards' presidential campaign.

I don't have much passion for defending Edwards right now, but this whole case feels like a real stretch to me.

dmarks said...

"Both had consensual affairs. That was their personal business."

This is not true in Clinton's case. Clinton had his affair in a public office, and the conduct of it was prohibited in the White House ethics guidelines. This one wasn't personal business.

"One actually broke the law only when the opposition party made his personal business into a legal issue"

Similarly not quite right. This was quite relevant to a workplace sexual harassment case. As of course it was not personal business, but a matter of office conduct in a Federal office. Clinton made this into a legal issue by committing crimes related to it, ranging from the ethics violations to the perjury. None of this was the Republicans' fault or doing. It was entirely Clinton's choice to engage in public conduct in this fashion.

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