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

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. 

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.

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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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