One might expect that we could reach a national consensus about the disqualifying impact of highly credible allegations of sexual misconduct by Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore. Last I looked, there wasn’t much of a constituency in favor of pedophilia, adult males courting tenth-grade girls, or just plain sexual creepiness.
But while that consensus may hold when applied to some scumbag hanging around the schoolyard in a raincoat, it seems to fall apart when applied to a scumbag politician hanging around the mall.
The primary difference, of course, is the political context. Politics, as practiced in the United States, is tribal. Each side always finds a way to ignore, forgive or excuse conduct by one of their own that they would never tolerate by a member of the enemy tribe.
Even when the conduct is indefensible, critics are attacked by a resort to “Whataboutism.” Whataboutism is nicely defined in Wikipedia as a “logical fallacy that attempts to discredit an opponent’s position by charging them with hypocrisy without directly refuting or disproving their argument.”
While the term may be new, there’s nothing new about the technique. Kindergartners instinctively defend bad behavior with “he did it first.” Grade schoolers whine about how “Johnny’s mom and dad let him do it,” at least until their parents tell them that they don’t give a damn about Johnny’s mom and dad. High schoolers caught red-handed with a bottle or a joint insist that “everybody does it.”
Lawyers even have a saying for it: When the facts are in your favor, pound the facts. When the law is in your favor, pound the law. When neither the facts nor the law is in your favor, pound the table.
Suffice it to say that Roy Moore and his defenders are pounding the table with all their might.
It goes like this: “What about Bill Clinton?” Many of those calling for Moore’s head on a platter, the argument goes, have no standing because they went easy on Clinton when he was caught messing around with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and when Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Juanita Broaddrick accused him of sexual assault, including forcible rape. Where was “we believe the women” then?
(Moore’s critics answer back, “Well, what about Trump?” Trump has a long, sordid history of alleged sexual misconduct, starting with his first wife’s sworn testimony (later partially walked back) that he had violently raped her in 1990. Since then, some twenty women have reported non-consensual sexual encounters with Trump, many of them recounting being physically violated exactly as Trump bragged he could do in the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape. Not to mention Trump’s stomach-turning trick of walking backstage at beauty contests to leer at young women “standing there with no clothes.” But that’s another story.)
It’s tempting to dismiss Moore’s Whataboutism as a pure dodge, the last refuge of a scoundrel who otherwise has no defense.
And it is a dodge, but that’s not necessarily the end of the story.
While harkening back to Bill Clinton’s misconduct does absolutely nothing to mitigate Moore’s loathsome behavior, looking at the two scenarios together provides serious food for thought.
To be sure, there are legitimate distinctions between the affairs Moore and Clinton. Clinton’s alleged misconduct, for instance, never included pedophilia. The most serious allegations against Clinton were made public only after he was already president, making the only potential political remedy removal from office, a far more consequential action than simply deciding not to vote for him. And the most serious accuser, Juanita Broaddrick, filed an affidavit under oath denying stories that Clinton had made unwanted sexual advances prior to telling a different story in public. That doesn’t mean that her later story is untrue, but it certainly doesn’t bolster her credibility.
On the other hand, Moore has never been accused of rape.
But trying to decide whose sexual misconduct was worse, Moore’s or Clinton’s, is a mind-numbing task, and largely beside the point. Nor is it possible, without a lot more information than most of us will ever have, to argue conclusively that one set of accusers is more credible than the other.
No, the more important questions, the ones we might actually be able to answer, are about ourselves, not about Moore and Clinton.
Foremost among them is whether the Moore scandal should cause those of us who supported Clinton through his scandals to rethink our position.
The answer has to start with a clear-eyed look at what “our position” actually was in response to the allegations made against Clinton. Did we stand by him because we didn’t believe his accusers? Did we believe the accusers, in whole or in part, but nevertheless stick with him because we strongly disliked his opponent? Did we just not know, or even care, if the allegations were true because we thought he was a good president? Or was it something else, something we can’t quite grasp or articulate?
I suspect that each of us has his or her own personal answer.
As for me, I think I always believed, deep down, that that there was an element of truth in the allegations against Clinton, and probably also a measure of exaggeration. I know for sure that I had enough questions that I would not have been comfortable leaving my 20-year-old daughter (if I had one) alone in a room with Bill.
And yet, at the time I didn’t have the same kind of visceral reaction to Clinton’s misconduct that I now have to Moore’s or Trump’s. It may have been a sign of the times, but Clinton seemed merely flawed, whereas Moore seems like a self-righteous predator, and Trump seems like an entitled, bullying pig.
But the times they are a changin’. We’re much savvier now about sexual misconduct. In the classic 1966 movie Blow-Up, David Hemmings’ character stripped two young model wannabes in his studio. The scene was clearly intended to be viewed as a playful frolic. Today it looks like a sexual assault.
Clinton’s conduct, too, looks different to me today than it did at the time. Today, I would not dismiss the allegations so casually. I would take them more seriously, and try harder to assess their credibility. I would try to be less blinded by tribal instincts. As the times change, we have to change too.
So, if the question is whether the Moore scandal provides us with a good opportunity to think seriously about how we initially responded to the allegations made against Bill Clinton, my answer is yes.
But if the question is whether Clinton’s misconduct in any way mitigates Moore’s, my answer is no.
Follow Philip on Twitter at @PhilipRotner. Philip is an engaged citizen and a columnist who has spent over 40 years practicing law. His views are his own and do not reflect the views of any organization with which he has been associated.