On Sunday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) made the rounds on the political talk shows to discuss, among other things, last week's remarks by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) that Democrats pushing insurance coverage of birth control tells women they "cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government."
Paul told CNN's Candy Crowley that Huckabee was right to criticize the Democrats' narrative about the GOP being anti-women. "The whole thing of the 'war on women,' I sort of laughingly say, 'Yeah, there might have been — but the women are winning it.'" On NBC's Meet the Press, Paul added that not only are women not "downtrodden," but "in fact, I worry about our young men sometimes."
To defend Huckabee, Paul also brought up another former Arkansas governor, and a well-known extramarital affair from almost two decades ago.
Paul's comments to Meet the Press' David Gregory came in response to a question about Hillary Clinton's presidential 2016 prospects, and a comment Paul's wife recently made to Vogue about how "Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky should complicate his return to the White House, even as first spouse." Here's what the Kentucky senator said:
Well, you know, I mean, the Democrats, one of their big issues is they have concocted and said Republicans are committing a war on women. One of the workplace laws and rules that I think are good is that bosses shouldn't prey on young interns in their office. And I think really the media seems to have given President Clinton a pass on this. He took advantage of a girl that was 20 years old and an intern in his office. There is no excuse for that, and that is predatory behavior.... Someone who takes advantage of a young girl in their office? I mean, really. And then they have the gall to stand up and say, "Republicans are having a war on women"?
In one sense, what Paul says about Bill Clinton is basically inarguable in today's polite society. A 49-year-old boss having an affair with a 22-year-old intern is deeply frowned upon. Perhaps pointing out that one of the most popular Democrats committed such an offense in the Oval Office will put the Democrats on the defensive, or undermine their strength among female voters.
And yet... Bill Clinton is way more popular than congressional Republicans. Gallup's last polling on the former president, in August 2012, had him with an astounding 69 percent approval rating. In a new Washington Post/ABC News poll, 80 percent of respondents say they don't trust Republicans in Congress to make the right decisions for the country — worse than the already-dismal 73 percent who say the same of congressional Democrats.
That's something of an apples-to-oranges comparison, but remember, the affair didn't help congressional Republicans at the time, either. Gallup recorded Clinton's highest job approval rating in office, 73 percent, on Dec 19-20, 1998 — the date the GOP-controlled House impeached Clinton for lying about this affair with Lewinsky. After months of full-court GOP outrage over Clinton's dalliance, Democrats had just picked up seats in the midterm elections.
And it's not as if the Lewinsky card is a particularly new one for Paul to play.
"The issues that were raised by my colleague Sen. Paul have been litigated in the public square for over a decade," Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told NBC's Gregory after the Paul interview. Durbin added:
I mean, there are people who believe that though [Clinton] may have done the wrong thing, he paid a heavy price for it in terms of the impeachment trial and beyond.... And if the Republicans like my friend — and he is my friend — Sen. Paul want to dwell on these chapters in the past, I don't think it's going to have much resonance. [via Politico]
The Atlantic's Matt O'Brien is more succinct:
LOL at Rand Paul bringing up Monica Lewinsky. There will be voters in 2016 who weren't even alive when that happened.
— Matt O'Brien (@ObsoleteDogma) January 26, 2014
If Republicans want to chip away at their acknowledged weakness with women voters, attacking perceived Democratic strengths may be one way to gain through attrition — essentially the 2004 Karl Rove strategy, or Sun Tzu's Art of War. The safer play would be to stop talking about women's issues entirely. Most efforts to date have backfired (or been ignored).
After all, Paul and other Republicans can try to deny that women have specific issues they care about, or they can learn to talk about them differently, but what substantive arguments can they make? The "'war on women' is just a proxy for one view of the battle over abortion and reproductive rights, and Republicans haven't signaled any shift in their stance," says The Christian Science Monitor's Mark Sappenfield. "If anything, they appear to be closer to doubling down."
Talking about Monica Lewinsky won't really address that.