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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?
Reuters

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. 

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.

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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