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

So she didn't think too much about his past. 

Might this young woman be surprised, and change her opinion of both Clinton and the culture that embraces him, if she read up on all the misconduct allegations? She might feel a bit like I did after reading the Gawker article, "Who Wants to Remember Bill Cosby's Multiple Sexual Assault Allegations?" (Seriously? How did I not know about any of that? My favorability rating of Bill Cosby is affected!)

Kirsten Powers points out in a typically thoughtful, anti-Paul column that when it comes to sexual harassment or sexual assault, "We know of three women who made accusations: Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey. But Paul surely knows that no court of law ever found Clinton guilty of the accusations." As an agnostic about the details of those cases, I take Powers' point. 

But the culture surrounding how sexual assault accusations are received has certainly changed in intervening years. In recent days, for example, allegations against Woody Allen have prompted any number of left-leaning writers to side with his accuser after specifically citing what could be termed accuser-friendly heuristics.

Here's Aaron Bady writing at The New Inquiry:

The damnably difficult thing about all of this, of course, is that you can’t presume that both are innocent at the same time. One of them must be saying something that is not true. But “he said, she said” doesn’t resolve to “let’s start by assuming she’s lying,” except in a rape culture, and if you are presuming his innocence by presuming her mendacity, you are rape cultured.

Would he argue that Democratic defenders of Bill Clinton are sexual-harrassment or sexual-assault cultured? They certainly treat Clinton accusers like liars. 

And here's Ann Friedman writing in New York:

Here’s why I believe Dylan Farrow: While all the caveats about not knowing the family personally apply, I do know several women who have experienced sexual violence that is not dissimilar from what Dylan describes. I don’t know a single woman who has made up lies about such violence in order to gain something. And, probably just as important, I don’t know any men who have been falsely accused of committing such crimes.

She goes on to complain that "a lot of people—many of them journalists—are frighteningly quick to presume women are guilty when they speak out against older, powerful men." Applying these standards, which have significant though by no means universal support on the left, would be very awkward in a presidential race where the Democratic candidate was trying to become the first woman to win that position... while her husband, a man with the political talent to be her most effective surrogate, was also facing renewed controversy over sexual misconduct. Imagine that, amid the 2016 presidential race, one of Bill Clinton's former accusers, or even a new accuser, came forward to allege sexual assault. It's hard to think of anything that could cause more havoc under the Democratic tent. What would even happen? And is that possibility really so outlandish?
 
I very much hope that isn't where Election 2016 goes. Because of her hawkishness and weak record on civil liberties, I hope that Hillary Clinton is passed over in favor of a different Democrat during her party's primaries; regardless of the Democratic nominee, I'd much prefer an election that focused on the significant policies before us, rather than bygone scandals. If we spent the whole election cycle talking about NSA spying, over-incarceration and the abysmal state of schools in urban America I'd be thrilled. My nightmare scenario is Jeb Bush vs. Hillary Clinton. There's so much I'd like to forget but would have to remember about their relatives. I'm getting Clinton-Bush fatigue just thinking about it. 
 
What I expect, however, is a cycle where the "War on Women" is a factor. Democrats have a huge incentive to recycle that attack, and if they do so, Republicans have a political incentive to turn the attack around on Democrats as best they can. (Partisans also react to hypocrisy like sharks react to blood in the water: Even a drop miles off causes a feeding frenzy. Hence the instinctual need among Republicans to attack Democrats on any identity issue where they've been attacked.) Can there be any doubt that Bill Clinton is the most promising angle? What else would it be? If Hillary Clinton doesn't run, it will seem silly to tar Democrats with the behavior of a standard-bearer who left office more than 15 years ago. If she does run, many voters will view raising Bill Clinton-era scandals as fair game. And some will be surprised by what they have forgotten or never knew. 
 
If some number of persuadable voters comes away from the controversy believing merely that both parties have their problematic associations with people who treat women badly, the GOP attacks will have proven to be effective. Will any younger, female independents, who've been persuaded that associating with Limbaugh is problematic (because he called Sandra Fluke a slut) be persuaded that associating with Bill Clinton is also problematic, since he settled a sexual harassment lawsuit for $850,000 and called women he fooled around with liars? 
 
We may soon learn whether this generation of young voters is as forgiving of Bill Clinton as were their parents. Of course, the GOP, being inept at all things identity politics, could alienate women by going too far and trying to blame Hillary Clinton for complicity in the transgressions of her husband. They're fools if they try it. And every political party always encompasses fools, so they'll probably try it.
 
Stay tuned. 
__

* Here's how Rand Paul put it in an op-ed unlike most you'll read at Breitbart.com: 

In civilian life, many sexual assaults go unreported. It is understandably difficult to report an attack, particularly from a peer or co-worker. In the military, the pressure to say nothing is even more intense. Based on the information from SARPO, 87 percent of assaults in the military last year were not reported, and this could be due to intense internal pressures or threats to keep quite.

The Military Justice Improvement Act combats sexual assault in the military by restructuring the way in which sexual assaults are reported. These decisions should be handled by trained legal experts that will objectively represent, defend and bring justice for the young women and men who so proudly serve our nation.

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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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