Why is Rand Paul going after Bill Clinton?

Rand Paul broadsided Bill Clinton Sunday, scolding Democrats for claiming Republicans are waging a 'war on women' when Clinton has been given 'a pass' for the Lewinsky scandal. 

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky talks to media after an event hosted by President Obama at White House in Washington earlier this month. On Sunday, Senator Paul fired back at Democratic claims of a Republican 'war on women.'

On Sunday, a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate once again tried to to turn the tables on the Democrats' contention that the Republicans are waging a "war on women." And once again, he showed just how hard it is for Republicans to fight back against the claim without hurting themselves.

True, the comments by Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" barely registered on the Huckabee scale. In attempting to quash the idea of a Republican war on women earlier this week, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee merely reinforced the perception with folksy comments about women's "libidos" and the federal government as their "Uncle Sugar." To many, he came across as condescending and wildly off tone.

Senator Paul, meanwhile, merely insinuated (heavily) that there is no small hypocrisy in accusing Republicans of waging a war on women when a leading Democratic figure (Bill Clinton) once seduced a young intern.

"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," Paul said. "Then they [Democrats] have the gall to stand up and say, 'Republicans are having a war on women.' "

The comments, of course, have a ring of validity. Mr. Clinton's actions with Monica Lewinsky are not the narrative of a women's rights pioneer.

Yet the comments also have a ring of Huckabeean condescension, too.

Paul said "the media have given President Clinton a pass on this." Yet two-thirds of registered voters view Clinton favorably, according to a September 2012 New York Times/CBS News poll. It's hard to pass off that level of popularity as the product of a media conspiracy, especially when Clinton's greatest foible was no secret – was, in fact, discussed endlessly by the nation and actually resulted in his impeachment by the House.

In that way, Paul risks sounding like someone trying to rekindle the embers of old controversies solely to score political points. Moreover, he also risks sounding like a scold, telling American women that they've been hoodwinked into giving this "predatory" president a pass.

The fact is, Republicans know they have a problem. The gender gap reached a historic high in 2012, with men favoring Republican Mitt Romney by 8 percentage points and women favoring President Obama by 12 – a total gap of 20 points. The Republican post-mortem after the 2012 election said Republicans need to be more responsive to "war on women" attacks from Democrats.

Paul, it would seem, is just following the script.

But what can he and other Republicans really say?

"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. If anything, they appear to be closer to doubling down.

So perhaps it's no surprise that a October 2013 United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection poll found that women are hardly warming to the Republican Party since 2012.

"Only 14 percent of women said the Republican Party had moved closer to their perspective. More than twice as many women, 33 percent, said the party had drifted further from them. A plurality, 46 percent, saw no change," writes Shane Goldmacher in the National Journal.

Which leaves Paul to talk about Bill Clinton.

On the other hand, it's possible his comments weren't really about Bill Clinton at all. After all, Clinton's wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is at this point seen as a shoo-in for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.

Speaking of Clinton's presidential scandal, "Meet the Press" host David Gregory asked: "Is it something Hillary Clinton should be judged on if she were a candidate in 2016?"

Paul demurred, then added about Mr. and Mrs. Clinton: "Sometimes it's hard to separate one from the other."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.