The going gets tougher.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Trump Digs Up the Clinton Baggage

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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Hillary Clinton romped through the first three Democratic presidential debates: a clear front-runner with the wind at her back. The going could get a lot rougher in the fourth forum on Sunday, the last before primary voting actually begins. She’s taken a lot of incoming recently and not just from Enemy No. 1, Donald Trump, but from inside her tent, too.

For starters, Vice President Joseph Biden gave Bernie Sanders, Clinton's only real rival among Democrats, a big Biden shoulder rub.

In a CNN interview on Monday, he said Sanders was doing a "heck of a job," particularly on the Democrats' signature issue of income inequality, which was "relatively new for Hillary to talk about."

Biden laid it on thick: “Bernie is speaking to a yearning that is deep and real. And he has credibility on it," he added. "Hillary's focus has been other things up to now.”

He later tried to clarify by saying her focus was, of course, on "foreign policy" as secretary of state, but still, that hurts.

However indirectly, Biden gave Democrats a reminder, with more force than any Republican could, that Clinton, as a senator from New York and later a member of the cabinet, didn’t focus on the little guy as much as she did on foreign governments and Wall Street.  

And just as Clinton seemed to have weathered the drip, drip, drip of e-mails, a fresh batch was released last week. It reminded voters of her above-the-law attitude that gave rise to her private server in the first place and her cavalier (if not illegal) approach to classified information. About 66 of the 3,000 newly released pages contained classified information. Irony of ironies, Clinton wrote that she “was surprised” to find out that another State Department employee was using a personal account. Last week, State's inspector general faulted the department for providing “inaccurate and incomplete” information in 2013 when it said it had no records related to Clinton’s use of an alternate e-mail system.

Clinton’s biggest headache, however, might be an old problem that never seems to die and that was resurrected last month by Trump: the Lewinsky scandal. Or rather, not the scandal itself, but her past behavior.

During a discussion of campus sexual assaults in Iowa recently Clinton said that women had “the right to be heard” and “the right to be believed.” Trouble is, as first lady, she and her allies weren't always willing to accord these rights to women. When a husband is accused of sexual transgressions, it’s all well and good to put your marriage back together. But that doesn’t give a free pass to treat women telling the truth as “bimbo eruptions” and "trailer trash." Clinton told friends that Lewinsky was “troubled” and a “narcissistic loony toon." A White House staffer smeared the former intern as a paranoid stalker.

And even before Trump dredged it all up, and we were sickened by the grotesque revelations about Bill Cosby, many a liberal women had come to regret their knee-jerk support for a president who was right on their issues but had victimized a young woman who stupidly fell in love with him, told a friend, and paid a huge price for it as she poignantly described in Vanity Fair and a Ted talk. 

Trump is the master of finding a soft spot and poking a stick in it. One of his latest ploys is to blast “Born in the USA” at rallies to taunt Canadian-born Senator Ted Cruz. Before Trump accused Clinton of being the real sexist in December, her lead over Sanders averaged 24 points in 10 national polls. In January, some polls showed her margins slipping precipitously.

Hillary’s dismissed Trump's attacks on her husband as a "dead end" that "won’t work." Then daughter Chelsea Clinton, in her first major campaign appearance on Tuesday, went negative on Sanders.  

Blowing off Trump could work as the press is distracted by the multi-car pileup on the Republican side. It used to be the press couldn’t take its eyes off the Clintons, the Kardashians of politics. Now there’s Trump, with a weakness for gilt and models, to fill that niche. Not so long ago, Clinton was picked at for making rookie mistakes, calling herself  “dead broke,” allegedly being too cozy with the Clinton Foundation while at State, and looking  “inauthentic” in her too-cute Scooby Van. Then Clinton was declared the Comeback Kid, winner of the first debate, found to be funny and unscripted in a totally scripted skit on "Saturday Night Live," and deemed brilliant for showing up the hapless inquisitors at the Benghazi hearings.

Early in the race, Sanders may have felt very alone -- a socialist David against the Clinton Goliath. Now he has Trump, relishing acting as if he’s already in the general election, softening up Clinton. And he’s not done. On Monday on "The Tonight Show," Trump promised, "I haven't even started on her yet."

The Vermont senator was declared the loser of the first debate for graciously telling the moderators, "enough about the damn e-mails.” Trump has proved there’s never too much about anything in today’s strange politics. If Sanders -- who  trails the front-runner by just 2 points in Iowa, according to a Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll -- isn’t emboldened to take on a weakened Clinton in the fourth debate and deny her another comeback, he’ll lose his last chance to shine before voting begins, and possibly lose it all.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net