Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) generated quite a bit of attention over the weekend when he decided to divert his attention from complaining about the current Democratic president to complaining about the previous Democratic president. Today, he did it again.
On Sunday's "Meet the Press," the Kentucky Republican tried to deflect attention away from the GOP's "war on women" by pointing to President Clinton's Lewinsky affair 19 years ago. The former president, Paul said, was guilty of "predatory behavior." He added that this would be relevant if Hillary Clinton runs in 2016 because "sometimes it's hard to separate one from the other."
In other words, the senator may be prepared to go after Hillary Clinton because of her husband's affair.
Today, Paul took a slightly different posture -- he said he only talked about Bill Clinton because he was asked, and the Lewinsky affair "doesn't really apply" to Hillary Clinton -- but still seems focused on the sex scandal from the mid-1990s.
"[O]ne of the things that was rotten about the old patriarchal system we did have, was that bosses took advantage of young women in the workplace. And I think Democrats tried to make Bill Clinton out [as], 'Oh, just a guy who has a lot of affairs.' But several of these were in the workplace." [...] "Republicans are as pro-women's rights as any other group out there," he said. "If [Democrats] are going to say [otherwise], they need to explain why they defended a guy who really had his own personal war on women going on."
There are two parallel objectives to rhetoric like this, one more obvious than the other.
When it comes Republicans being "pro-women's rights," Rand Paul's desperation is showing. He is, after all, a libertarian who believes in small government, who also happens to believe in big government when it comes to restricting women's reproductive rights.
For that matter, he's struggling with the basics of the criticism of the GOP: the "war on women" isn't about the behavior of specific individuals who engaged in misconduct; it's about a broader policy agenda adopted by an entire political party. As we discussed yesterday, Republicans have been extremely aggressive in the Obama era to restrict reproductive rights, scrap Planned Parenthood, close health clinics that provide important services to women, limiting access to contraception, force medical professionals to lie to women, and force women to undergo medically unnecessary exams for political reasons. In recent years, as Republican politics has become more radicalized, the party has also used inexplicable rhetoric on rape, opposed pay equity laws, and pushed antiquated views on gender roles.
To respond to this by pointing to Bill Clinton's personal misdeeds 19 years ago reveals a striking confusion about what "pro-women's rights" actually means in English.
But the other part of this, I suspect, has to do with the former president's broad national support. This may seem hyperbolic, but Bill Clinton is arguably one of the most popular people on the planet. Republicans who hated Clinton with a passion during his time in office -- up to and including impeaching him -- have since decided he wasn't such a bad guy after all. Robert Schlesinger labeled the phenomenon "Clinton Nostalgia Syndrome."
What's more, the public has had many years to evaluate Bill Clinton and judge his actions. By and large, Americans tend to like the guy. They know about the sex scandal and they just don't care.
And that's probably why Rand Paul is suddenly so interested in trying to take the guy down a peg. As the Kentucky Republican readies a national campaign, he's no doubt aware of the fact that Hillary Clinton is a possible candidate, and the senator likely fears that Clinton nostalgia will make the former Secretary of State tough to beat.
So Paul, apparently unable to think of anything else, is suddenly eager to talk about Lewinsky -- more than once.
For his sake, he may need a back-up plan.