"Sexual politics" once described the power relationship between a man and a woman, but that has changed, like everything else, with the changing times. In the age of the Internet, with its blessings and curses delivered at warp speed, presidential politics expands (some say narrows) to include what goes on between a man and a woman.
The Garden of Eden, where Satan once enticed Eve to nibble the forbidden apple (which was not an apple at all, except in the secular telling), has become overgrown with weeds and roses thick with thorns. That first couple's political descendants worry very little about what they do in G0D's eye, only how it plays out in the public eye. Moliere's notorious hypocrite, Tartuffe, understood in the 17th century that the greatest crime is exposure: "It is public scandal that constitutes offense, and to sin in secret is not to sin at all."
But public scandal isn't what it used to be, either, and Tartuffe's perception is flawed and dated in the modern sexual politics of double-think ethics. Donald Trump is no moral giant, but he had Hillary's Achilles tendon squarely in his sights when she dispatched her husband to campaign for her in New Hampshire: "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," he said. He warned Bill to be prepared to defend a bad hand. He insinuated further that he might leave Bill's sins alone if the Clintons cooled their accusations against him. How disarming.
The Donald is quick to see the vulnerability of opponents in a sensationalized world of thrust and counterthrust, and he easily exploited the four clay feet of the two Clintons. When they joined themselves at the hip to campaign for Hillary, they doubled the size of a juicy target. The Washington Post, no friend of Republicans, assisted by educating the newest of the voters, who were barely out of diapers when Bill left the White House, with a catalogue of accusations by a regiment of women. The Post primly separated his "consensual affairs" from "allegations of unwanted sexual encounters."
Bernie Sanders, whose campaign strategy is to find opportunities to pull his punches, told ABC News that "we have more things to worry about than Bill Clinton's sexual life." No doubt true. But Hillary understands what Bernie doesn't, that she's uniquely vulnerable on the point because she must win a robust turnout of younger women to run a credible race. Her antique feminism is a hard sell to women of the protest generation. Bill's campaigning for her carries risks.
Young female voters came of age after the sexual accusations against Bill Cosby, which finally, after 40 years, are getting the nation's attention. These women don't necessarily find Bill Clinton similarly guilty as accused, though the story of a 22-year-old intern named Monica Lewinsky sounds like credible workplace harassment. Women in the 21st century workplace have learned to lean in, not lean back, and they have little patience with any man who once took advantage of the weaker, "second-sex" mindset of an earlier era.
By including Bill in her campaign, Hillary's exploitation of an imagined Republican "war on women" is likely to be muted. She struck a defensive tone with her New Year's resolution to ignore the Donald's attacks on her foreign policy and his assertion that she helped to create ISIS. It's hard not to see her as a wounded warrior on two battlefronts. The softer, gentler version of Bill Clinton on display in New Hampshire reveals few traces of the lying Lothario whose tales of randy adventure plagued the Clintons in the past. He talks of being a harmless grandfather and says he's not angry at anybody. The rake might be making progress. But it's an image without seductive bite. The New York Times described him in Hillary's 2008 campaign as being on "a short leash." And this week, a headline over an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, suggesting that Hillary took Bill to the vet, inflicted real sting: "The Big Dog Gets Fixed."
A neutered Bill reflects the sordid past without his saving roguish manner. The photographs of young women standing behind him during a speech in New Hampshire showed them grimacing, smirking and fighting off yawns. Chutzpah was once protection for the Clintons' chutzpah; one outrageous revelation after another cancelled a collective impact and made it difficult for one to stick. So it may still be. Bill is clearly the politician in the family, but this time he may not be Hillary's "secret weapon." She would have been wiser to let the sleeping dog, "fixed" or not, sleep undisturbed.