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

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.

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. 

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.

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