On Flirting With Social Conservatives

How many people does it take to give traction to a political story?

Two. Rand Paul, and the editor of Politico.

Not again.
Not again.

Rand Paul has been popping up here, there and everywhere in the US media recently, reminding us of all the sins from Bill Clinton’s two presidential terms and suggesting that Clinton’s actions from the late 1990s somehow represent a current-day Democratic Party war on women in 2014.

The whole thing is a fairly transparent effort by Rand Paul, a principled and capable first term senator, to increase his popularity with the wary social conservatives from the base of his party and (as a convenient bonus) to tarnish Hillary Clinton’s image a little in the event that she decides to run for president in 2017. I said as much as far back as 27 January:

Senator Paul is absolutely right to call out Bill Clinton’s behaviour for what it was – an abuse of his presidential power and symptomatic of a predatory attitude toward women. What makes this different from what the Republican Party has been doing, however, is the fact that the Lewinsky affair was a private indiscretion, and the harm done to women took place in the course of interpersonal relationships between those people directly involved. The Republican Party, on the other hand, has sought to push for legislative outcomes – around contraception, abortion and equal pay to name a few – that would impact all women in the United States. Private action vs. public legislative action. False equivalence.

Others said the same, and this should have been case closed. But Politico, knowing a click-generating story when they see one, happily takes the bait with a full-length feature by Liza Mundy in their magazine:

Like it or not, we’re having a national flashback to the 1990s—replete with images of thong underwear near the Oval Office, semen-stained blue dresses and all manner of sordid details we thought we’d outgrown. These nostalgic tidbits come to us courtesy of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, the possible 2016 presidential contender who, anticipating a matchup against Hillary Clinton, has lately been determined to remind America what happened the last time the Clintons occupied the White House. In a series of recent interviews, Paul has resurrected the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which first surfaced in sensational fashion in 1998, when the president was accused of having an affair, of sorts, with the 20-year-old White House intern.

Paul, to his credit, hasn’t dawdled on the lurid details—rather he’s framed the discussion as a matter largely of workplace behavior, challenging Democrats’ self-image as the party friendly to women. “If they want to be credible in saying they defend women’s rights in the workplace,” Paul said in an interview last week, Democrats should “disown” Bill Clinton, whom Paul considers “a predator, a sexual predator, basically.”

Like it or not? We could all have avoided the flashback if Politico had chosen not to play along by devoting a whole feature to achieving Rand Paul’s ends, but then Politico are not known for taking the high road.

Given the fact that the reanimation of the Lewinsky scandal is just part of a grand plan by Rand Paul to curry favour with the socially conservative base of the Republican Party, surely he could have picked a better issue to make his own personal cause? After all half of the congressional party has been guilty of similar indiscretions at one time or another – the only thing separating their actions from Clinton’s being their proximity from the Oval Office at the time they were committed. If Rand Paul hopes to make himself look good by contrast, it will be fellow GOPers against whom the contrast is drawn just as much as it is Bill Clinton. And those guilty Republicans – the likes of Newt Gingrich, for example – may not take kindly to a Rand Paul campaign whose main platform is a repudiation of the very actions that made them notorious.

But on closer examination, it appears that Rand Paul has few other options given his need to improve his standing with social conservatives without alienating his support from the younger, more libertarian wing of the party. The Atlantic sums it up well:

Given that one of his key selling points in the GOP primary will be his (relative) support among younger Americans, Paul can’t exactly crusade against gay marriage or the legalization of pot. Bashing Bill Clinton provides a politically safer way to champion moralism. It certainly helped George W. Bush, who in 2000 won Christian right votes, despite playing down social issues, because he played up his personal, anti-Clintonian religious and moral code. Paul seems to be attempting something similar, telling Maureen Dowd, “In my small town, we would disassociate, we would in some ways socially shun, somebody that had an inappropriate affair with someone’s daughter or with a babysitter or something like that.”

This is right on the money. Rand Paul is generally principled in his libertarianism and has few outlets with which he can appeal to socially conservative voters, many of whom grant an exception for big government when it comes to forcing people to conform to their moral code. There is no point in Rand Paul launching a crusade against gay marriage – it would sound false coming from his lips, and besides, that ground is doggedly occupied by Rick Santorum and (less plausibly) Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani et al. The same can be said for the issue of marijuana legalisation, where a U-turn would do harm to his younger base.

The one area where Rand Paul can really show his moral “uprightness” – since his libertarianism does not allow him to force his beliefs on others through law – is by recalling tawdry behaviour from a past Democratic president.

If this is done carefully, Paul may reap rewards. By emphasising Bill Clinton’s predatory attitude toward women, he also effectively criticises many of his Republican peers and rivals without having to go on the record as having explicitly done so.

The danger, as I have previously pointed out, will come about if Rand Paul persists in trying to create a narrative of a Democratic “war on women” comparable to that waged by the bulk of the Republican Party. The electorate is more than capable of distinguishing the difference between the private actions of an individual (Bill Clinton’s affairs and womanising behaviour) and the concerted legislative efforts of an entire political party to attack the rights of half the population.

There are certain former and likely future Republican presidential candidates  – think Cain, Bachmann, Palin, Perry and Santorum – who can run and maintain their popular support on a platform of deliberate, even joyful ignorance, and not suffer as a result. Rand Paul is not a member of this group. His popularity rests more on principles and reason, and on people who admire these things in a politician. Continuing his efforts to equate a presidential sexual indiscretion from the 1990s with the general policy platform of his party will begin to test their patience.

By all means, talk about the persecution of Christians abroad and the moral shortcomings of the forty-second president of the United States if you want to. They are real, legitimate issues and there are real, indisputable facts to back them up, even if some of them do date back to 1998. But to go any further in an attempt to court social conservatives – a volatile and unpredictable part of the Republican party – is dangerous for a libertarian.

There is only so much common ground that a libertarian can find with a social conservative. And if the libertarian knows what is good for him, he stops trying once he has found and exploited it.

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