WASHINGTON — For Hillary Rodham Clinton, the last few months might be comparable to a spring cleaning: An airing of her political past before she sets the course for her much speculated-about future.
As the former secretary of state and first lady mulls a presidential campaign in 2016, reminders of the tumultuous periods of her career have re-emerged in recent weeks: her husband’s affair in the White House with Monica Lewinsky, her ill-fated attempt to overhaul the health care system and the deadly 2012 attack at a diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya.
Bill Clinton said presidential campaigns always need to be about the future, but that gets complicated if Hillary Clinton runs again after losing out to Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination in 2008.
Republicans might press the argument that at a time when many Americans are unhappy with the nation’s direction, she represents a bygone era marked by political soap operas.
Yet many Democrats say reminders of the 1990s — remember the booming economy? — could help Clinton, and that rehashing her past more than two years before the next presidential election could dispense with a variety of distractions.
If a Republican challenger or a Democratic primary opponent invoked Lewinsky, Whitewater, cattle futures or other retro story lines in 2016, Clinton’s team could try to dismiss it all as old news.
“For the majority of people, this is an eye roll,” contended Maria Cardona, a former Clinton campaign adviser.
Vanity Fair magazine published a first-person account this past week from Lewinsky in which she said Bill Clinton “took advantage” of her, but that their affair was consensual.
Lewinsky cited recently released papers from a longtime Hillary Clinton friend, Diane Blair, in which the former first lady called the once White House intern a “narcissistic loony toon.” Lewinsky wrote that she found Hillary Clinton’s “impulse to blame the Woman — not only me, but herself, troubling.”
When the magazine posted excerpts of Lewinsky’s account on its website, Clinton was speaking at a mental health conference and was asked about the 1993 suicide of White House counsel Vince Foster.
The magazine’s story arrived as the National Archives continues to release documents from the Clinton White House that have shed more light on Hillary Clinton’s role leading the 1993 health care task force. That’s a politically volatile issue as both parties debate the merits of Obama’s health law.
Republicans, meanwhile, have created a special House committee to investigate the Benghazi assault, and that could mean a long spotlight on Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state.
“The ghosts of Clinton past are coming out to haunt her future,” said Alice Stewart, an Arkansas-based Republican strategist.
Even her first political event of the year brings back memories of the Clinton White House years.
She will raise money Thursday for Marjorie Margolies, a Democratic candidate for Congress in Philadelphia’s suburbs. Margolies served one House term in the 1990s and lost re-election after casting a decisive vote in favor of Bill Clinton’s economic plan. Margolies is the mother-in-law of the Clintons’ daughter, Chelsea.
Hillary Clinton is adding to the scrutiny with the publication next month of her memoir, “Hard Choices,” about her time at the State Department.
In recent speeches, Clinton has described themes in the book. It starts with her decision to accept an offer to join her rival’s Cabinet. It delves into Obama’s authorizing the raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, Clinton’s role in helping Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng seek refuge in the U.S. and the American effort to normalize diplomatic relations with Myanmar.
“Everybody faces hard choices in our lives,” Clinton said last week.
Republicans are trying to define Clinton and her record long before she makes her final decision on 2016. It’s a strategy that some in the GOP hope might encourage her not to run.
She remains a fundraising juggernaut for Republicans and potential challengers are already testing themes that could be used against her.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a potential 2016 GOP presidential candidate, has raised the Lewinsky affair in recent months and he told members of the Republican National Committee on Friday that her handling of Benghazi “precluded herself from ever being considered for” the White House.
Also Friday, GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said in New Hampshire that Democrats were likely to nominate someone “who wants to take us to the past.”
Yet Clinton’s backers view the economic boom of the 1990s as a strong selling point. During a recent speech at Georgetown University, his alma mater, the former president made an extensive case for his economic record, citing the millions of people who emerged from poverty under his watch.
After years of economic struggles, the Clinton era might seem rosy.
“Anytime you remind voters of the ’90s that’s good for us,” said Matt Bennett of the centrist Democratic group Third Way. “Even the bad stuff in the 90’s seems quaint in comparison to what has happened since.”
KEN THOMAS, Associated Press