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Liberals 'move on' from defending Bill Clinton's sexual conduct

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Democrats and liberals protected former President Bill Clinton after Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones, and Kathleen Willey accused him of nonconsensual sexual impropriety. Feminist icon Gloria Steinhem insisted that Clinton's defense of abortion rights was more important than the imbalance of power between himself and White House intern Monica Lewinsky. (AP Photos)

"I believe Juanita Broaddrick." It's a sentence you might have found in conservative publications in the 1990s, or written by a token conservative columnist in a major metropolitan newspaper.

Today you can read "I Believe Juanita" as a headline in the New York Times, appearing above the latest entry by liberal columnist Michelle Goldberg. Broaddrick has accused former President Bill Clinton of raping her while he was attorney general of Arkansas.

In recent weeks, we have seen many mighty Hollywood figures fall due to revelations of sexual misconduct: Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Louis C.K. to name a few of the most prominent examples. In Alabama, Republican Roy Moore is being abandoned by the national party because of credible allegations that he had inappropriate relationships with girls as young as 14, with one woman claiming sexual assault.

Even former President George H.W. Bush has been accused of improper touching of women, while telling jokes about a magician named "David Coppa feel."

But Clinton and the Kennedys have long been given a free pass for well-sourced allegations about their treatment of women. Former President John F. Kennedy had extramarital affairs and accounts of his behavior suggested a casual misogyny. The death of Mary Jo Kopechne might have doomed a lesser political figure than the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.

As late as last year, Donald Trump's invocation of Broaddrick, Paula Jones, and Kathleen Willey, all women who had accused the former president of nonconsensual sexual impropriety, was viewed as an audacious distraction. Trump, after all, had been accused of sexual misconduct himself and his general election opponent was Hillary Clinton.

Yet, a reappraisal is occurring now, based on the idea that a presumption in favor of believing accusers cannot exclude Bill Clinton.

"The Democratic Party needs to make its own reckoning of the way it protected Bill Clinton," wrote the Atlantic's Caitlin Flanagan. "The party needs to come to terms with the fact that it was so enraptured by their brilliant, Big Dog president and his stunning string of progressive accomplishments that it abandoned some of its central principles."

Protect Clinton Democrats and liberals did. Feminist icon Gloria Steinhem insisted that Clinton's defense of abortion rights was more important than the imbalance of power between himself and White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

"If all the sexual allegations now swirling around the White House turn out to be true, President Clinton may be a candidate for sex addiction therapy," she wrote in the New York Times in 1998. "But feminists will still have been right to resist pressure by the right wing and the media to call for his resignation or impeachment."

Others routinely dismissed the allegations against the 43rd president of the United States. "If you drag a hundred dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you'll find," said longtime Clinton confidant James Carville in reference to the Jones sexual harassment claims.

They sounded, in other words, like right-wing apologists for Moore, trying to discredit the women and arguing that taking the right political positions is what is most important.

Earnest liberals like MSNBC's Chris Hayes and Vox's Matthew Yglesias have begun to second-guess all this.

“That so many women have summoned the courage to make public their allegations against Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, and Bill O’Reilly —cor that many have come to reconsider some of the claims made against Bill Clinton — represents a cultural passage," observed New Yorker editor David Remnick.

"[T]here’s another, broad question that progressives and other Democrats need to confront, one that reaches beyond Clinton," writes Jeff Greenfield. "And it’s an issue triggered by the response on the Right to Donald Trump’s campaign, and (to a lesser extent to Judge Roy Moore: Are they going to let partisan politics warp their capacity for clear moral judgment?"

All this is also happening in the context of a broader reassessment of the Clintons on the Left. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., ran as much against Bill Clinton's 1990s record as he did against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primaries. Veteran Democratic insider Donna Brazile's new book almost reads like a warning against another Hillary presidential campaign, criticizing the last one in terms that were once unthinkable for a party elder of Brazile's stature.

"We owe the Clintons a lot," said a Democratic strategist requesting anonymity to speak candidly. "But it is time to move on."

"Move on" was the famous slogan adopted by Clinton partisans during the Lewinsky scandal and the fight against impeachment. It was the phrase used wipe away allegations against the then president, to argue that talk about his sex life was immaterial and it was time to focus on legitimate public concerns — the people's business.

"Censure President Clinton and move on," they said.

Democrats can be faulted for delaying this reckoning until the Clintons were at the nadir of their influence, when the party can turn the page to former President Barack Obama and a new generation of politicians.

Twenty years ago, however, nobody would have seen it coming at all.