As if Mike Huckabee's "Uncle Sugar"-and-the-female-libido comment weren't bad enough last week, Republican Sen. Rand Paul kicked off this week with another disturbing comment related to women. On NBC's Meet the Press this past Sunday, Paul implied that potential presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton is damaged goods because of her husband. More specifically, he was referring to former president Bill Clinton's sex scandal with White House intern Monica Lewinsky as being a drag on her candidacy -- which may be a hint of the kind of tactics that are in store if Hillary Clinton officially announces her bid for the presidency in 2016.
To be fair, Paul did not volunteer the statement that kicked off the Hillary conversation. He was responding to a question about something his wife Kelley said in the couple's 2013 profile in Vogue magazine. Reading a quote from the magazine, Meet the Press host David Gregory said:
"'While her husband jokes' -- meaning you -- 'that his gut feeling is that Hillary Clinton will not run for president is good a thing, since all the polls show her trouncing any opponent, Kelley, the wife of Senator Rand Paul, practically cuts him off to say that: "Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky should complicate his return to the White House, even as first spouse. I would say his behavior was predatory, offensive to women," she tells me.' Are these issues something that you really think will be fair game and an appropriate part of a campaign, should she [Hillary] be the nominee?"
In one of the picture captions in the profile, Kelley is called Rand Paul's "secret-weapon wife."
Responding to Gregory's question about whether Bill's scandal would be fair game, Paul first tried to cast the Democratic Party as hypocritical on women's issues, saying:
"Well, you know, I mean, the Democrats -- one of their big issues is they have concocted and said Republicans are committing a war on women. One of the workplace laws and rules that I think are good is that bosses shouldn't prey on young interns in their office."
I'll unpack that rhetorical maneuver in a moment.
Then Paul showed some seemingly sincere righteous indignation that the media appears to have given President Bill Clinton a pass on this issue:
"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.
"This isn't having an affair. 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'?? So, yes, I think it's a factor."
Oops! It appears he realized then the possibility that he may have said something he did not intend to say publicly. He added, "Now, it's not Hillary's fault. And, I mean--"
Gregory nudged him, and Paul continued, "But it is a factor in judging Bill Clinton in history."
Gregory followed up: "Right, but is it something that Hillary Clinton should be judged on if she were a candidate in 2016?"
Straight from the episode's transcript (my italics added):
SEN. RAND PAUL: Yeah-- no, I'm not saying that. This is with regard to the Clintons, and sometimes it's hard to separate one from the other. But I would say that, with regard to his place in history, that it certainly is a discussion. And I think in my state, you know, people tend to sort of frown upon that. You know, if there were someone in my community who did that, they would be socially-- we would dissociate from somebody who would take advantage of a young woman in the workplace.
So, it's the Billary strategy after all. And Paul smells like a GOP presidential contender.
Image: © Paul Moseley/MCT/ZUMAPRESS.com
I can agree with Paul that former president Bill Clinton should not be let off easily for pursuing a sexual relationship with a young intern, his subordinate. But it's not as though the media's forgotten the former president's transgression (nor has the entertainment industry). January 26, 2013 marked the fifteenth anniversary of his infamous "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky" speech, and the media covered it then, just as this year some media outlets noted that January 7 marked the 15th anniversary of Bill Clinton's impeachment. C-Span even re-aired video of the trial, including Bill's (stupid) statement that he didn't know he was having sex with Lewinsky. So, Bill's record is forever marred, but is Hillary's?
As you may have guessed, I have a few problems with Sen. Paul's argument.
- By reinforcing his wife's assessment that the American public will ignore the former secretary of state's many accomplishments and penalize Hillary in the voting booth because of her husband's reprehensible conduct, Sen. Paul insults the American electorate in general, and women voters in particular. Perhaps the GOP subscribes to the popular but fallacious notion that women automatically and naturally tear down other women.
- Irony of ironies, Paul's inseparability-of-Clintons statement itself subordinates women, because it smacks of the conservative religious stance on the position of wives in relation to their husbands. I am speaking of the "biblical" assessment that "woman is the weaker vessel" and that therefore, a husband's desire and identity naturally eclipses his wife's desires and identity. This concept of the submissive wife is more often associated with conservative Republican ideology than with progressive thought. From various Republican officials declaring women should stay at home, to others who have proposed that spousal rape should be legal and wives should submit to their husbands, many Republicans' views of adult women are outdated and oppressive. Yet these ideas about the place of women remain credible within the GOP. Why else would so may of their male members express thoughts such as these in public?
- Sen. Paul may say "it's not Hillary's fault," but the suggestion that she will be faulted for Bill's indiscretions remains a likely talking point and potential double-bind strategy for Republicans, should Hillary run. On one hand, the GOP promotes a very traditional concept of marriage and gender roles, in which it would be expected that a wife "stand by her man," for better or worse. On the other, they indulge statements such as the one made by Kelley Paul, which ostracizes one of the most powerful women in the country for doing just that -- standing by her man.
Is it possible that no one in the GOP understands feminism? Feminism does not bind women to doing what other people think they should do; it empowers them to think for themselves, to choose the course of their own lives. The only way Hillary would have been able to separate herself from Bill would have been to divorce him. And then when she ran later, what? She'd be accused of putting her ambition ahead of her family, the same charge that's being hurled at Wendy Davis in Texas right now. The GOP would likely have done to Hillary what they did when she was first lady, and paint her as a woman who disapproves of women who stay home with their families and bake cookies.
- Doesn't Rand Paul claim to be a Libertarian as well as a Republican? If so, I'm confused. How does smearing Hillary with Bill's moral failure fit with the Libertarian ideals of individualism? Again, if it's "hard to separate" the Clintons, as he says, then he envisions a Billary -- not a Hillary.
- And finally, that not-so-clever rhetorical move, Sen. Paul's "sleight of hand" false equivalency. Really. Really, Rand? Did I hear you right? Did you go on national television and say that the Democratic Party's decision to "move on" from Bill Clinton's sex scandal equals a disrespect for women akin to a war on women? Do you really think that the Republican Party's consistent and aggressive crafting of policy and introduction of bills that harm women is no worse -- or less worse? -- than one man's sexual misconduct and his party's willingness to forgive him? If so, may I remind you that the GOP has had its share of sex scandals. Neither party can afford to engage in pointing fingers at individuals' having affairs or misusing an office for sexual endeavors as evidence of partywide war on women.
The charge that the GOP has launched a "War on Women" is not about straying penises but, much more importantly, stifling policies.
So, again: Even if you factor in that Bill took advantage of a female subordinate in the workplace, what does that have to do with Hillary's integrity? And why would the GOP be more concerned about Bill's workplace transgression than it is about helping multitudes of women with the many other issues facing them daily in the workplace, such as not receiving equal pay for equal work?
Sen. Paul's comments suggesting that Bill's moral failure translates to a great challenge for Hillary's campaign confirms that GOP leaders have little faith in women's ability to evaluate policy before voting -- and that Republican leaders are still tone deaf to women's issues. His comments also indicate that Rand himself has trouble seeing any nuance in the gray areas of how women relate to their spouses and lovers, versus how they relate to their political roles, rights and destinies. (But yeah, yeah. We heard you shake that other rattle at Hillary, too: Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi.)
This waiting for Republicans to understand their woman problem has become tedious. Really, somebody should stop the GOP from running with scissors when it comes to addressing women and discussing women's issues.
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