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Two attacks on Hillary Clinton that won't work

January 27, 2014, at 5:57 PM

In the past 48 hours, two potential Republican rivals of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton found themselves with the chance to take a shot at the presumed Democratic front-runner in 2016.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) brought up President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky to show that the so-called "war on women" is a false Democratic attack.

And Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) called on Hillary Clinton to be candid about her mismanagement of the deadly violence in Benghazi, Libya.

Both attacks have superficial plausibility. But if they're the best that Republicans have, then Clinton is an even stronger presidential candidate than she appears to be.

Here's what Paul said, in context:

This whole sort of war on women thing, I'm scratching my head because 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. Law school, 60 percent are women. In med school, 55 percent. My younger sister is an OB-GYN with six kids and doing great. I don't see so much that women are downtrodden. I see women rising up and doing great things. In fact, I worry about our young men sometimes because I think the women are outcompeting the men in our world...

The women in my family are doing great. That's what I see in all the statistics coming out. I have, you know, young women in my office that are the leading intellectual lights of our office. So I don't really see this, that there's some sort of war on women that's, you know, keeping women down. I see women doing great and I think we should extol that success and not dumb it down into a political campaign that somehow one party doesn't like women or that. I think that's what's happened. It's all been for political purposes.

In another interview yesterday, Paul was asked about his wife's contention that Hillary should be judged in part by Bill's conduct in office.

Someone who takes advantage of a young girl in their office? I mean, really. And then (Democrats) have the gall to stand up and say, 'Republicans are having a war on women'?" he said. "Now, it's not Hillary's fault … but it is a factor in judging Bill Clinton in history."

Let's unpack the first set of quotations. Notice how Paul uses examples from his own to life to assure the viewer that, thank you very much, women are doing just fine. Why, the sister of a U.S. senator is doing just great and so are her kids. So are women I directly employ. They're doing fine. My niece is going to be an animal doctor, and wouldn't you know it, the majority of folks in her class are women. So, women are doing just fine. In fact, for want of a lack of an example, I'm kind of concerned about my male progeny.

The reason why the "war against women" trope works for Democrats is because it's plausible. Paul is generally correct that society is becoming more equal along the axis of gender, although much of that is the result of income inequality's burden on men. But tonally, and for women who are the targets of the Democratic campaign, access to health care, Planned Parenthood, and equal pay are as important to them as anecdotes of Paul's family are to him. Republicans need to see beyond the tip of their nose.

More atonal is Paul's attack on Hillary Clinton by association with her husband's Oval Office dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, the intern. Paul found that behavior disgusting, as did, not incidentally, the Obamas. But it's painful to watch Paul attempt to link Hillary Clinton's behavior to her husband's cheating heart, and then make the leap and say that Democrats are waging the war against women.

First, is it good form to attack the wife of a guy who cheated on her? That's just bad form. Second, although Hillary Clinton should never be called upon to explain and account for her husband's mistake, it's quite easy for her to respond by noting that, throughout the course of her husband's political career, there aren't too many male politicians who have expanded the opportunities available to women around the world, not to mention the millions of women whose lives his foundation has helped save. If the Lewinsky ick somehow was going to stall Hillary Clinton, it would already have done so. And it didn't. She became a senator. Then a presidential candidate. Then a secretary of State.

Benghazi has a superficial appeal, and if Republicans took off their blinders and thought about it, could form the basis for a more substantive, plausible critique of Clinton's management style and foreign policy worldview. Alas, Ted Cruz, who has no credibility with the media, seems to be the Republican standard-bearer on Benghazi. And nuanced he ain't. In his attack, it's not that Clinton endorsed the over-commitment of U.S. military assets worldwide, or that Clinton relied too heavily on trusted subordinates instead of competent managers, it's that she actively covered up something and was callous and indifferent to the families of those four Americans who died there.

Some free advice for Republicans: The best way to use Benghazi is to concede that Clinton did the best she could given the difficult circumstances that day, and that there will always be open questions about what exactly caused the events that led to the deaths of American diplomats and contractors, but that the question Clinton has yet to be held accountable for is whether President Obama's decision to support NATO air strikes to effect regime change were in the interests of U.S. national security, and if so, how.

In the scheme of things, I think Paul will prove to be the more plausible presidential candidate. But so long as Ted Cruz is his party's loudest voice on Benghazi, Clinton will find the issue to be annoying, rather than defining.

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