Politics

02.12.14

Rand Paul Woos the Base With Hot Monica Lewinsky Talk

Tweaking the Clintons may help win over Republicans for a presidential bid. But talk of a 15-year-old affair won’t convince women who oppose his libertarian policies.

What on earth is Rand Paul thinking, bringing up Monica Lewinsky? On cable TV, they shake their talking heads: ancient history, irrelevant, etc. Quite true, it’s all those things. But in terms of intra-GOP presidential-positioning politics, I think it’s actually quite shrewd, and another sign that he is not to be underestimated in terms of possibly nabbing the GOP nomination. Unfortunately for Paul—although fortunately for America—it’s only shrewd in terms of intra-GOP politics. Among the rest of the electorate, responses will range from indifference to hostility, and the “GOP War on Women” narrative won’t suffer a scratch.

Here’s what Paul is doing. First, he’s getting right with the base. As a devolutionist-libertarian, he takes some unorthodox positions from the conservative point of view—his neo-isolationist, anti-neocon foreign policy views, his comparatively soft-line views on same-sex marriage (he’s not for it, but he’d leave it to the states). There are reasons, in other words, for hard-shell conservatives to give him the gimlet eye.

Given that, what are some ways to make conservatives think you’re “one of us” without having to alter those positions, which he surely knows would be a disaster for him, destroying the very basis of his appeal as principled and so on? Find something conservatives hate and say you hate it too. What bigger something than the Clintons? Well, there’s Obama, but hating on him is old hat. Dredging up Lewinsky, on the other hand, shows that some care was taken to cultivate conservatives. As Paul knows, Clinton-hatred is still mother’s milk for that crowd.

He is also, as Peter Beinart noted, aiming specifically at the Christian Right. He’s been doing this for some time now, talking, for example, of the persecution of Christian minorities around the world. His father never bothered much with evangelicals, an error the son, recognizing their importance in the Iowa GOP caucuses, clearly hopes not to make.

I think there’s a final reason, which emotionally is the most important of all. When Muhammad Ali was Cassius Clay, when he was still months away from a title shot against champ Sonny Liston, he’d knock out the latest second-rater in three rounds and then, when they stepped into the ring to interview him, carry on about how all he wanted was a fight with Liston: “I want that big brown bear!” The more he talked, the more promoters and fans were able to visualize a Clay-Liston fight.

The more Paul talks about the Clintons, the more he sets up the mental picture in the brains of Republican primary voters of him being the logical guy to step into the ring with them. After all, they’ll think, he’s sure not afraid of them!

It’s very smart (all this assumes of course that Hillary Clinton runs and is the Democratic nominee). All the other Republican candidates laying into the Clintons will look like Johnny-come-latelys. Paul spoke up first.

But the good it does him ends there. Here we return to the age-old Republican blind spot on issues relating to groups that don’t vote for them. Republicans think they can make everything better with words and symbolism. Just get our candidates to stop saying these stupid things like Todd Akin did. Speak respectfully. Sensitively. Appoint more women to high-profile thingies. It’ll be fine.

That isn’t how politics works. How politics works is that people actually care about substance to a surprising degree, and they know which party is representing their interests and which party is not. And women, by 12 percentage points at last count, know that Republicans are not. All right, it’s slightly more complicated than that—married women vote Republican, as do white women. But last I checked, African American women and Latina women and single women are women, too, and each of them has the same one vote that a married white woman has.

And overall—don’t take it from me, take it from the numbers—the women of America have decided that the GOP isn’t on their side. And it’s not because of the offal that flows out of the mouths of Todd Akin and company, really. It’s because of policies. And Rand Paul supports every one of those party policies.

Funny, but his libertarianism does not extend to giving a woman the right to decide whether to have an abortion. It did, however, in March 2012, extend to the “freedom” of religious institutions that were fighting the expanded requirement for contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act. You may remember the Blunt Amendment, which sought vast conscience exemptions from the coverage requirement. Paul voted for it.

I could keep going and going. Just last month, Paul floated the idea of a federal cap on welfare benefits for women who have more children. It is true that 16 states have such caps, and it’s not necessarily an ill-intentioned thought that saying “no more money for another child” might produce the desired effect of women not having those children. The problem is that in real life there seems to be no correlation. So the net effect is really just to increase the number of women and children living in poverty.

Then there’s little gem of a quote: “The whole thing with the War on Women, I sort of laughingly say, ‘yeah there might have been,’ but the women are winning it.” He said this two weeks ago. Let’s just say I doubt many professional women would agree.

If Paul really thinks that he can get women to overlook this record (and there’s much more) and decide to vote for him because Bill Clinton made some yakahoola with an intern, he’s as clueless as Reince Priebus is with his Latino and gay outreach. This is a case where the better scenario is that he’s just being cynical for the sake of snagging GOP votes. If he actually believes what he’s saying—well, God help us, but it does make him a natural to become the nominee of that party.