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

But Paul seems to think he's found an actual Democratic vulnerability. If you doubt that's why the Bill Clinton attacks started, take a look at how they first came up. Paul agreed to a profile in the September issue of Vogue, an interview where he was presumably trying to reach women voters in particular. His wife, Kelley Ashby, is interviewed alongside the Kentucky Senator. Vogue reports (emphasis added):

Kelley gives the famously dour senator something more than merely a pretty image-softener. The 50-year-old mother of three is an impassioned defender of her husband and his ideas. But she’ll also speak her own mind. While her husband jokes that his “gut feeling” that Hillary Clinton will not run for president is a good thing since “all the polls show her trouncing any opponents,” Kelley practically cuts him off to say that Bill Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky should complicate his return to the White House, even as First Spouse. “I would say his behavior was predatory, offensive to women,” she tells me.

What an interjection.

That actually isn't an implausible opinion for a 50-year-old Republican woman to hold. Whether it was a planned zinger or an unscripted one that Paul has since adopted doesn't ultimately matter: This particular attack does all of the following: (1) It shows Paul defending women against being sexually harassed; (2) in the process, it permits him to ding one of the most effective Democratic fundraisers; 3) It is, furthermore, an attack on the spouse of his most formidable 2016 rival. (4) And substantively, it undermines a part of the "War on Women" strategy.

Not the policy part. 

Democrats can and will criticize Paul's position on abortion and other issues of substance. There is no getting around any of those policy debates, nor should there be. But the part of the "War on Women" strategy that focuses on guilt by association?

That will be harder for Democrats to sustain.

How the Clintons Complicate the 'War on Women' Strategy

Under Obama, GOP jujitsu on the "War on Women" couldn't succeed, by virtue of his position on reproductive rights, his Supreme Court nominations, the role Valerie Jarrett plays in his White House, and his squeaky-clean personal life, in which he appears to be a supportive husband to a smart, independent FLOTUS and a great dad to likable young women. Future GOP efforts to turn the charge around would also seem implausible, save for one singular factor: Bill and Hillary Clinton. 

Everything changes if they're the face of the party.

Talk to Democrats about Bill Clinton and a lot of them take a perfectly defensible position: By my lights, they say, his policies were good for women and for Americans as a whole, and while I certainly don't condone his extramarital affairs, or the more serious allegations of sexual misconduct, which I hope aren't true, I can separate a politician's flawed personal life from his actions as a public official. That is, in fact, my gut reaction to Bill Clinton: distaste for his personal behavior, but an inclination to see the impeachment attempt as a folly that damaged the country by distracting us from pressing matters and making the personal political. 

Censure and Move On was right.

But skip ahead 15 years.

Today, when Democrats invoke the "War on Women," they're focusing, in large part, on substantive policy questions like abortion law and the cost of contraception. Still, the depraved political genius of the frame is that it transcends policy battles and encompasses every gaffe about women that the least defensible Republican makes. Democrats aren't just using it to tell voters that they have better policies. The 'War on Women' frame is designed to persuade voters that the GOP has a woman problem. A misogyny problem. That Republicans aren't allies. 

A perfect illustration occurred when Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a slut after she testified before Congress about contraceptive subsidies. Democrats demanded that Republican legislators condemn the talk-radio host for his comments.

The Washington Post editorial board opined:

We are not calling for censorship. Nor are we suggesting that the ostensible policy issue here—mandatory provision of contraception under health insurance paid for by religious-based institutions such as Georgetown—is a simple one. Those who questioned President Obama’s initial decisions in this area—we among them—were not waging a “war on women,” as Democrats have alleged in strident fundraising appeals.

What we are saying is that Mr. Limbaugh has abused his unique position within the conservative media to smear and vilify a citizen engaged in the exercise of her First Amendment rights, and in the process he debased a national political discourse that needs no further debasing. This is not the way a decent citizen behaves, much less a citizen who wields significant de facto power in a major political party. While Republican leaders owe no apology for Mr. Limbaugh’s comments, they do have a responsibility to repudiate them—and him.

Note that the editorial considers the "war on women" an inapt frame for the actual, substantive policy disagreement, but an acceptable frame for the question of whether Republicans would distance themselves from an ally who behaved execrably.

As the newspaper saw it, "a decent citizen" could do no less!

"Rush Limbaugh is the Republican Party," Charles Johnson wrote of the controversy. Gawker argued that Mitt Romney didn't distance himself from Limbaugh at all, jumping to the conclusion that he would've just used a synonym for slut. The standard was clear: If a prominent player in politics behaves indefensibly toward a woman, his partisan allies have a responsibility to distance themselves. If they fail to do so, for any reason, they too are part of the problem.

When Rand Paul is asked about the "war on women," and replies that "anybody who wants to take money from Bill Clinton or have a fundraiser has a lot of explaining to do," he is invoking what is, at minimum, a very similar standard (though it seems implausible to me that he regards it as a correct standard). His hypocrisy-trolling would be less effective if Lewinsky were the only Clinton sex scandal. But as Paul well knows, there were allegations of sexual harassment—Clinton paid $850,000 to settle them—and even Juanita Broaddrick going on NBC and accusing Clinton of rape. How would Democrats react if the GOP's top fundraiser had a history of sex with a 19-year-old intern, a sexual-harassment lawsuit that ended in a pricy settlement, and a public rape allegation, among other indiscretions?

I suspect the "War on Women" frame might come up!

There are a lot of astute observations in Beinart's piece, but when he writes that Paul's strategy is flawed because "Clinton’s infidelities didn’t hurt his popularity at the time," he misses a few important factors. Back then, Democratic partisans had little choice but to support a sitting Democratic president; voters were alienated by the insane manner in which the most zealous Republicans attacked Clinton; and the GOP's object now isn't to make Bill Clinton unpopular, it's to change perceptions about the "War on Women" in a way that makes Republicans less vulnerable to the attack. 

There is, finally, the fact that the voting pool has changed.

Today's young voters, who Democrats rely on more than Republicans, were children in 1996. Would the good impression they have of Bill Clinton really survive a closer look? Perhaps not. Let's imagine a hypothetical young Democratic voter. (I know, we'll call her Julia.) On her 30th birthday, she happened to catch Bill Clinton's speech at the 2012 DNC. How did she conceive of him that day? During the Clinton sex scandal, she was just 14. In 2012, she knew about Lewinsky, considered it an indiscretion with an intern, and saw that Clinton is now respected in the Democratic Party and among Americans generally.

Jump to comments
Presented by

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.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Technicolor Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

A Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier

Video

What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets

Video

Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.

Video

What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

Just In