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What Rand Paul doesn't understand about the 'war on women'

Paul's remarks highlight the GOP's difficulty with not just in countering Democratic attacks on gender-related matters, but in simply understanding the problem.
Rand Paul walks from the White House after an event hosted by Barack Obama about the Promise Zones Initiative, Jan. 9, 2014.
Rand Paul walks from the White House after an event hosted by Barack Obama about the Promise Zones Initiative, Jan. 9, 2014.

Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul told NBC News' David Gregory last Sunday that he doesn't think there's a "war on women," and if there is, women can declare victory. Paul also questioned whether the Democratic Party even has the right to criticize Republicans on gender, given President Bill Clinton's affair with then-White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Paul's remarks highlight Republicans' ongoing difficulty with not just in countering Democratic attacks on matters related to gender, but in understanding what the problem is in the first place.

First, Paul's statistics regarding women in the legal and medical professions are plainly off. Paul began defending his stance on the "war on woman" by pointing to his own family. "I have a niece at Cornell vet school, and 85% of the young people there are women. In law school, 60% are women. In med school, 55%. My younger sister is an OB-GYN with six kids and doing great. You know, I don't see so much that women are downtrodden; I see women rising up and doing great things. And in fact, I worry about our young men sometimes because I think that women really are outcompeting the men in our world," he said. 

Women make up less than half of enrollees at law schools, according to the American Bar Association, and are way underrepresented on the federal bench. The percentage of women in medical school is also less than 50%. 

Whatever you think of the Democrats' political framing, the "war on women" has never been primarily about individual politicians' sleazy behavior towards women. Men in power behaving badly is a relatively bipartisan phenomenon. Democrats' attacks on Republicans for waging a "war on women" is about the Republican Party's policy agenda, one that includes weakening workplace protections against discrimination, forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, carving out religious exceptions to insurance regulations that compel companies to cover reproductive health, and opposing legislative measures to combat sexual assault. 

Paul's resurfacing of Clinton's affair from more than 16 years ago to prove Democrats are being hypocritical misunderstands or ignores this policy critique in a futile attempt to reframe the issue as a matter of personal virtue. 

"I think really the media seems to be -- 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, and it should -- it should be something -- we shouldn't want to associate with people who would take advantage of a young girl in his office -- this isn't having an affair," Paul said. "I mean, this isn't me saying, oh, he's had an affair, we shouldn't talk to him. 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?"

The press  didn't give Clinton a "pass," coverage of Clinton's affair with Lewinsky was suffocating -- at the time Americans thought the media devoted too much attention to the issue. The public simply didn't care as much as the media did or as much as Republicans wanted them to. Drawing attention to the misbehavior of individual Democrats--like Bill Clinton--does nothing to address the larger social issues women face, or the perception of Republican indifference or active hostility towards addressing or even acknowledging them. 

The first bill signed into law overturned a decision reached by the conservative-dominated Supreme Court that made it harder for women to sue for discrimination when being paid less than men for the doing the same work. The overwhelming majority of Republicans in both houses opposed it. Thanks largely to Republican controlled state legislatures, more state-level abortion restrictions have been implemented in the last two years than in the previous ten combined. Shortly after taking back the House in 2010, Republicans made a massive effort to defund Planned Parenthood, reflecting a similar effort nationwide by the state parties. Republicans held up the Violence Against Women Act for more than a year over protections for Native Americans, undocumented immigrants and gays and lesbians. The Supreme Court is set to take up a lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act's mandate that insurance companies cover the cost of birth control, with Republicans arguing that an employer should be able to define what medical treatments are available to their employees based on the employer's religious beliefs.

Democrats and liberals have often relied on gaffes and sexist remarks by individual Republicans as a way to draw attention to these issues, which may be why Paul thinks he can neutralize this line of attack by bringing up something that happened when Coolio was still popular. Last week when former Arkansas Republican Governor Mike Huckabee--who himself signed a bill into law as governor mandating that insurance companies cover birth control--suggested that the cost of birth control was related to the amount of sex women have. While he attempted to frame his argument in feminist rhetoric, accusing Democrats of treating women as helpless, what he was really saying was that insurance companies (and employers) should be able to discriminate against women by denying them insurance coverage for treatments men don't need.

Even if you object to the framing, there's a simple policy argument underlying the Democrats' "war on women" rhetoric, which is that Republicans favor a public policy agenda that makes it harder for women to succeed in the workplace and interferes with their ability to make basic decisions about their lives and health.