Rand Paul vs. Bill Clinton: It's 'War on Women' Jujitsu

The attack on Republicans worked in 2012, and Democrats will use it again in 2016. Will their frontrunner's husband weaken its efficacy?
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When Bill Clinton left office, I hadn't yet started following politics closely, but I remember feeling eager for his departure, not because I had any strong feelings about his presidency—I was a kid for most of it—but because I was so very tired of the surrounding drama. I never wanted to hear about Monica Lewinsky or Ken Starr or Linda Tripp or Whitewater or that blue dress ever again, any more than I wanted to see another newscast featuring Marcia Clark, Lance Ito, and Kato Kaelin or stand at a supermarket checkout aisle with Princess Di covers all around me.  

America would later look back on the 1990s with nostalgia. After 9/11, the Iraq War, the financial crisis, and eight years of George W. Bush torturing humans, laws, and oratory, the Clinton years seemed like a time of relative innocence, peace, and prosperity, and the Republican push for impeachment seemed like an absurd excess. Nineties nostalgia helped a Democratic candidate win the 2008 presidential election. And the fact that the Democrat was Barack Obama rather than Hillary Clinton allowed Bill Clinton, who upset some Obama Democrats during the 2008 primaries, to quietly reestablish himself as a globe-trotting elder statesman.

During the 2012 campaign, Bill Clinton reentered political life for a brief moment, and it was electrifying: We remembered, in theory, that he was a great orator, but we'd actually forgotten how compelling he could be on a stage with a microphone. With Obama as the object of right-wing ire, Clinton was no longer a polarizing figure. Recent polls peg his current approval rating at almost 70 percent.

So a lot of folks in the political press were surprised when Senator Rand Paul, a presidential aspirant, started referring to former President Clinton as a sexual harasser on C-SPAN and later as a sexual predator in an interview with Newsmax. As Chris Cillizza would put it in a Washington Post article, "What gives?" 

My colleague Peter Beinart suggests that the attacks are nothing more than a way for Paul to shore up his credibility with social conservatives skeptical of libertarians. He cites Clinton's popularity among Americans and women in particular. "Paul isn’t speaking to most Americans," he concludes, "he’s speaking to the Christian right." The observation that this could help Paul among conservative Christians is astute. But senators eyeing the White House say things that serve multiple purposes, and I believe Paul's strategy is about more than the religious right.

Asked about several of his Bill Clinton comments on Meet the Press, Paul himself offered this context: "the Democrats, one of their big issues is they have concocted and said Republicans are committing a war on women." Every Republican with presidential aspirations is gaming out the best way to respond to that Democratic campaign tactic, and this is part of Paul's answer. I expect we haven't seen the last of it. In fact, even if Paul himself never mentions Bill Clinton again, I suspect others in the GOP will deploy a similar tactic if Hillary Clinton runs for president and the 'War on Women' attack is deployed. 

If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em

Let's take a highly condensed look back at identity-based attacks on Republicans by Democrats. Over many years, Democrats found success defining the GOP as the party of racial insensitivity, with lots of assists from characters like Trent Lott and George Allen. There was a time, back in the 1990s, when the most typical Republican response would be to inveigh against political correctness and race-baiting. Figures on the right would accuse Democrats of cynically using race as a cudgel, and lament the immorality of making frivolous accusations of racism. 

Some in the GOP still make those complaints. 

But gradually, Republicans realized that the American people were never going to reject charges of racial insensitivity as a category. So they began to take a different approach: They tried to make the case that Democrats are "the real racists." Affirmative action became "reverse racism." Clarence Thomas accused Democratic Senators of a high-tech lynching. The Wall Street Journal editorial page complained that Democrats blocked Miguel Estrada's judicial nomination because they felt threatened by a Hispanic conservative. Some Republicans began referring to the Democratic Party as a "plantation." In time, Rush Limbaugh was making more frivolous accusations of racism than anyone in America

Neither party is always right on race. I judge these controversies discretely, on their individual merits. I've seen plenty of GOP racism, as well as Democrats cynically using race as a cudgel; I've seen Republicans justly accuse Democrats of racism, and I've seen Republicans make absurd, frivolous charges of racism too.

The "Democrats are the real racists" line has always been more cathartic than effective for the right. The GOP's use of the charge against Obama has been particularly absurd and doomed. Racially unifying rhetoric and a nuanced grasp of race in America are two of the things Obama does best, and when the right attacked, for example, his Trayvon Martin remarks, they seemed like they were feigning umbrage. Besides, attacking the first black president, who by the way is half white, for being "the real racist" was obviously going to be a hopeless task. But even that didn't stop the GOP from trying. Republicans feel unfairly attacked on race. And the urge to turn the attack around on Democrats is too much to resist.

Republicans feel similarly about the "War on Women" attacks: that they're being unfairly, cyncically labeled as retrograde misogynists by malign Democratic operatives. (Suffice it to say that, as in all broad-brush efforts to label one's partisan opponents in America, some of the attacks hit the mark and others are unfair.)  

Republicans were unprepared for the "War on Women" attacks in 2012. In advance of 2016, the GOP is coaching its candidates to avoid gaffes on rape and reproductive rights; and presidential aspirants are pondering how to inoculate themselves against the charge that all will face, true or not: that they're anti-woman. When Paul is so attacked, for example, he may point out that he joined Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's "crusade to end sexual violence in the military," backing significant reforms to change the way sexual assaults are reported.* 

Paul has also prepared clever, focus-group friendly responses to "War on Women" questions. For example, here's a different part of that recent Meet the Press interview:

If there was a war on women, I think they won. You know, the women in my family are incredibly successful. I have a niece at Cornell vet school, and 85 percent of the young people there are women. In law school, 60 percent are women; in med school, 55 percent. My younger sister's an OB-GYN with six kids and doing great. You know, I don't see so much that women are downtrodden; I see women rising up and doing great things. And, in fact, I worry about our young men sometimes because I think the women really are out-competing the men in our world. 

That wasn't off-the-cuff.

Paul doesn't merely want to have a record he can cite to inoculate himself against 'War on Women' attacks and a clever answer to reframe the issue. He feels the attack is unfair, and that sometimes, the best defense is a good offense. He wants an easy way to turn the "War on Women" back on the Democratic Party. If you believe, as most Republicans do, that the whole "War on Women" frame is contrived, it's going to be especially hard to claim that Democrats are waging "the real War on Women." The instinct to fight back could very easily go wrong. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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