Throughout this presidential campaign the Beltway conventional wisdom has been that the Republicans would never bring up Bill Clinton's scandals from the '90s because they had been burned so badly in the past by them. And they were. Clinton's job approval ratings went through the roof during the Ken Starr investigation and subsequent impeachment trial, and it was only Republicans who lost their seats over it.
Some GOP congressmen, including big names like Newt Gingrich, Henry Hyde and Bob Livingston, were brought low by revelations of their own indiscretions. It turned out that many of those who claimed to be of superior character had their own skeletons in the closet.
Furthermore, everyone also understood that if there were any ongoing recriminations, they would not be against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, the woman who had been humiliated in front of the whole world. When in 2000 she ran for the Senate, facing down the press and her opponent as they cornered her publicly, her strength and dignity impressed people and she won. The lesson was that this was not a fruitful avenue to pursue against her, and for the most part that was the end of it in subsequent campaigns. All the political pros assumed this line of attack was off the table.
And then along came Republican candidate Donald Trump and his posse of character assassins led by the most notorious dirty trickster in American politics, Roger Stone. He's been a close pal of Trump's for decades and wrote a book for the occasion called "The Clintons' War on Women" with the very specific intention of creating a brand-new narrative about Hillary Clinton destroying her husband's accusers.
Over the holiday season last year, Trump made it clear that he would not put up with any talk from Clinton about his sexism. His veiled threat was anything but subtle:
The Hillary Clinton staged event yesterday was pathetic. Be careful Hillary as you play the war on women or women being degraded card.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) Dec. 23, 2015
Hillary, when you complain about "a penchant for sexism," who are you referring to. I have great respect for women. BE CAREFUL!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) Dec. 23, 2015
He carried on like that for several days. This led to Hillary Clinton's famous "If equal pay for equal work is playing the women's card, then deal me in!" line, but she didn't directly level the charge of sexism again until recently. Trump may have believed that he'd shut it down permanently since her campaign had been hitting him hard for months in commercials for his hateful rhetoric against veterans and people with disabilities and his coarse language.
It turns out that she was lying in wait and in the first debate she took off the gloves by bringing up the story of former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, followed by a Spanish-language video telling the story as well as a moving ad called "Mirrors" with a voiceover of Trump making crude and insulting remarks about women's looks. It was a powerful combination that threw him off balance the next week, resulting in his late-night Twitter storms about imaginary sex tapes and more threats to use Stone's "Hillary enabler" strategy.
The polls ahead of that first debate had the race very close, and about that time campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and some Trump surrogates started circling around an interesting electoral strategy. They seemed to be trying to reinforce negative impressions of Hillary Clinton among Bernie Sanders voters yet without trying to directly appeal to them. These Trump players knew few such people could be persuaded to vote for the Republican presidential nominee but perhaps thought there was a chance they could push them to vote for one of the third-party candidates and give Trump a chance to sneak in under the wire with a plurality win.
It's tricky, however, it could theoretically work. After all there was some precedent for it. In 2000 Ralph Nader had taken enough votes to shift the election to George W. Bush in Florida even though Al Gore won the national popular vote. And there were those who argued that Ross Perot denied George H.W. Bush re-election in 1992, although exit polls suggested that he took votes from both parties equally.
If what Conway saw in the polls showed that Trump had hit his ceiling, maybe she felt she could leverage Trump's desire to hit Hillary Clinton with Bill's scandals for an electoral advantage. After all, the world looks at these issues differently today than it did 20 years ago, and younger voters could have a different take on those scandals if viewed out of the context of the partisan wars in which they were fought.
When Trump pulled his stunt on Sunday, bringing the four Clinton accusers before the cameras before the debate, his surrogates were on TV making a very specific point. Kayleigh McEneny of CNN put it this way:
It's important that these millennials behind me, who care deeply about sexual assault — I've been on a college campus the last seven years of my life. And I can tell you this, sexual assault is a big issue. The three women on the left, Hillary hired private investigators to look after. The woman on the far right, Hillary Clinton has an audiotape laughing at the girl, bragging about how she got the innocent rapist off who raped her.
Trump went on to evoke Sanders' criticism of Clinton seven times during the debate and even said Sanders had sold his soul to "the devil" by endorsing her. If you didn't know better, you'd think Trump had chosen him as a running mate.
If this really is a campaign strategy, it is destined to fail. It's certainly possible that younger Sanders voters could be repelled by Bill Clinton's scandals and decide to vote for third-party candidates Jill Stein or Gary Johnson on that basis — if Bill Clinton were running for president. But as much as many of them may not care for Hillary Clinton, they are highly unlikely to believe this lurid fantasy about her, particularly coming from the campaign of a disgusting misogynist like Donald Trump. They're young, but they're not stupid.