Hillary Clinton and the War Over Women

Hillary Clinton and the War Over Women
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In January of 1998, as her husband’s presidency was threatened by the allegation that he’d carried on a sexual relationship in the Oval Office with an unpaid White House intern less than half his age, Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared on the “Today” show.

Interviewed by NBC’s Matt Lauer, the first lady steered clear of specific questions about her husband’s involvement with Monica Lewinsky, while repeatedly shifting the conversation to the first couple’s political adversaries.

“I mean, Bill and I have been accused of everything, including murder, by some of the very same people who are behind these allegations,” she said. “The great story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president.”

Recently, Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican apparently considering a 2016 presidential bid of his own, invoked those dark days when Bill Clinton’s sexual activities—and his accompanying prevarications about them—led to his impeachment and subsequent Senate trial.

“He took advantage of a girl that was 20 years old and an intern in his office,” Paul said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “There is no excuse for that—and that is predatory behavior.”

The Washington cognoscenti responded swiftly, in near-unison. Appearing on the same show as Rand Paul, Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois said, “Hillary Clinton has established her own reputation, her own name. The issues that were raised by my colleague Sen. Paul have been litigated in the public square for over a decade.”

Durbin’s view found a ready reception in the press, which essentially accepted his “been there, done that” logic, while focusing on Rand Paul’s tactics instead of Bill Clinton’s behavior. Typical of this mindset was National Journal, a respected Washington political magazine: “Sen. Rand Paul,” it noted, “is talking like it’s 1999.”

Paul was undeterred. In a subsequent interview with conservative TV host Steve Malzberg, the Kentucky senator called Clinton a “repetitive…sexual predator,” adding that “there’s dozens, or at least half-a-dozen, public women who have come forward.” And in a C-SPAN newsmaker interview, he raised the stakes by suggesting that any Democrat who’d accepted money from a Bill Clinton-related fundraiser—and that’s hundreds of them—should prove their respect for women by giving the money back.

Paul’s grasp of the facts was not airtight. Monica Lewinsky was a 22-year-old woman when her activities with Bill Clinton commenced, not a 20-year-old girl. And only, if one can use that word, three of the six women Paul referenced ever asserted that Clinton’s attentions toward them were unwelcome. But the darling of the Tea Party was making a larger point. Actually, he was making three of them.

The first, specifically mentioned by Paul, is that Republicans are getting sick of the Democrats’ “war on women” slogan. The GOP’s answer—one answer, anyway—is to borrow a page from the feminist literature: The personal is always the political.

“They can’t have it both ways,” Paul said. “They want to take a position on women’s rights; by all means do. But you can’t do it and take it from a guy who was using his position of authority to take advantage of young women in the workplace.”

Secondly, Paul’s message is that Republicans shouldn’t ignore the media’s double standard of issues of personal conduct toward woman—they should confront it. In re-invoking Bill Clinton’s track record, Paul seemed to serve notice that the checkered pasts of other (male) Democrats is fair game as well.

Basically, he is challenging the Democrats, and their friendly neighborhood journalists, to explain why the prostitute-related transgressions of Republican Sen. David Vitter are any reflection on conservatism. If that’s true, then why aren’t the sexual sins of Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Anthony Weiner, and Bob Filner a reflection on liberalism?

Lastly, Paul is reminding the commentariat that despite Bill Clinton’s popularity, he never had to run for office again after the Lewinsky scandal broke. It’s true, as Dick Durbin noted, that Hillary Clinton sought—and won—elective office since then. But in this one facet, she was seen by voters as more of a victim of her husband than his partner. And she served in the Senate and as secretary of state in jobs that really didn’t involve Bill.

The presidency is a whole different deal, as the Clintons know better than most. If Hillary Rodham Clinton is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States on Jan. 20, 2017, William Jefferson Clinton will be the first “first dude” or the first “first gentleman”—or whatever we’re going to call him—and that’s a possibility some Republicans believe they can frame in their own words.

Asked whether he was saying that Bill Clinton’s previous conjugal difficulties reflected on his wife's abilities to potentially run the country, Rand Paul demurred. But he added that the Clintons are a team and that “sometimes it's hard to separate one from the other.”

That wasn’t a completely original thought. In 1992, Bill Clinton liked to quip to Democratic audiences inclined to like his wife that they’d get “two for the price of one.” Hillary herself put it differently. “If you vote for him,” she told female voters, “you get me.”

What Rand Paul is trying to say, 22 years later, is that the inverse of this maxim is true as well. It’s a fair point to make. The big question is whether it might backfire. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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