Why Is Rand Paul Talking About Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky?

There isn't much political logic to dredging the old scandal up—except as a move to shore up his credibility with social conservatives skeptical of libertarianism.
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In recent weeks, one Republican after another has come forward to rebut the Democratic claim that the GOP is waging a “war on women.” The responses have ranged from homey (Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers responding to Barack Obama’s State of the Union address by noting that she’d given birth just eight weeks earlier) to creepy (former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee saying Democrats think women can’t control their “libidos.”) But perhaps most puzzling has been the tack taken by Rand Paul, who in interview after interview after interview has accused Democrats of “hypocrisy” for claiming to support women’s rights while giving Bill Clinton a pass for his “predatory” behavior towards Monica Lewinsky.

Yes, Monica Lewinsky, who enjoyed her 15 minutes of fame 16 years ago. Luckily for Democrats, Paul hasn’t cottoned on to their affection for John F. Kennedy (naked White House pool parties with suspected communist spies) and Franklin Roosevelt (died in the presence of his mistress).

It doesn’t take long to grasp the flaws in Paul’s strategy. For starters, Clinton’s infidelities didn’t hurt his popularity at the time. Between January 1998, when the Lewinsky scandal broke, and February 1999, when the senate voted not to impeach him, Clinton registered the highest approval ratings of his presidency:

Gallup

And women backed him at higher rates than men. Hillary Clinton, who many consider Paul’s real target, registered her highest popularity during that same period:

Once the impeachment circus ended, Bill Clinton’s popularity did dip, leading some to suggest—as they continued too throughout the 2000 campaign—that the country was suffering “Clinton fatigue.” But the problem for Paul is that these days, Americans seem fatigued with the fatigue. A July 2012 Gallup poll found Clinton’s approval at an impressive 66 percent, higher than it had been since he left office. Among women, Clinton’s approval rating was 63 percent. It was 44 percent among Republicans. By comparison, President Obama’s most recent approval ratings are 43 percent among women and 12 percent among Republicans. Which helps explain why Paul is the only prominent figure in today’s GOP spending as much time attacking the last Democratic president as the current one.

So why the anti-Clinton offensive? Because Paul isn’t speaking to most Americans—he’s speaking to the Christian right. Paul is presumably well aware that while economic conservatives loved his father, social conservatives did not. In the Iowa caucuses, for instance, Ron Paul won 28 percent among voters who said the deficit was their primary issue but only seven percent among those who said it was abortion.

For months now, Rand Paul has been trying to make inroads where his father did not. Last June, at a conference organized by former Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed, he put a new twist on his skepticism about foreign aid, arguing that America is funding Islamic regimes that oppress Christians. “There is a war on Christianity,” he insisted, “and your government, or more correctly, you, the taxpayer, are funding it.” Last October, he told students at the Jerry Falwell-founded Liberty University that “America is in a full-blown spiritual crisis.” And last week, he told the anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage American Principles Project that “‘Libertarian’ … doesn’t mean ‘libertine’ … I don’t see libertarianism as, you can do whatever you want. There is a role for government, there’s a role for family, there’s a role for marriage, there’s a role for the protection of life.”

Paul’s effort to revive Lewinsky-gate is best seen as part of this effort. Given that one of his key selling points in the GOP primary will be his (relative) support among younger Americans, Paul can’t exactly crusade against gay marriage or the legalization of pot. Bashing Bill Clinton provides a politically safer way to champion moralism. It certainly helped George W. Bush, who in 2000 won Christian right votes, despite playing down social issues, because he played up his personal, anti-Clintonian religious and moral code. Paul seems to be attempting something similar, telling Maureen Dowd, “In my small town, we would disassociate, we would in some ways socially shun, somebody that had an inappropriate affair with someone’s daughter or with a babysitter or something like that.” (Paul actually lives in the third biggest city in Kentucky, but you get the point).

Paul’s anti-Clinton gambit reminds us that, ideologically, the GOP is divided into three parts, not two. There’s a Tea Party wing focused primarily on debt and the size of government, a socially conservative wing concerned primarily about abortion and the government’s alleged hostility to people of faith, and a party establishment that’s more hawkish on foreign policy and more willing to make the ideological compromises necessary to win. Paul’s challenge is to solidify his support among the first group while making gains with the second two. It’s no coincidence that as he was courting social conservatives last week by bashing Bill Clinton, he was courting establishment hawks by writing a letter to Obama arguing that only Congress should have the power to lift sanctions on Iran.

Obviously, no one knows whether Paul’s efforts to expand his support will succeed. What is clear is that, right now, no other Republican candidate is trying as hard.

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Peter Beinart is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Journal, an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

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