Monica Lewinsky is Rand Paul's answer to Democratic charges that Republicans are waging a 'war on women.' But it could backfire. Bill Clinton remains broadly popular with the public.
Will the Monica Lewinsky scandal play a role in presidential politics for 2016? That’s possible, given that likely GOP contender Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky raised this issue on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.
Senator Paul referenced Ms. Lewinsky when talking about past Democratic charges that the Republican Party wages a “war on women."
When making that rhetorical attack, Democrats should remember that their now-beloved ex-President Bill Clinton had an affair in office with a woman who was much, much younger than he, said Paul.
“He took advantage of a girl that was 20 years old and an intern in his office,” Paul told host David Gregory. “There is no excuse for that, and that is predatory behavior.”
President Clinton’s lies about this relationship led to his impeachment by the House in 1998. The Senate subsequently voted to acquit him, and he served out the remainder of his second term.
“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?’ ” said Paul on NBC.
When Gregory asked if the Lewinsky matter should play a role in a possible Hillary Clinton presidential run, Paul said that the ex-secretary of State should be judged on her own merits. But he then connected her to her husband anyway, saying “sometimes it’s hard to separate one from the other."
This marked the second time in recent days that a possible 2016 Republican candidate brought up a toughly worded response to the “war on women” charge. Last week ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said that Democrats try to make women believe there are “helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government."
Given the context of the remark, Paul’s Lewinsky reference does seem pre-planned. That’s because in a recent profile in Vogue, Paul’s wife, Kelley Ashby, practically leaped into a conversation between herself, her husband, and the writer to make the charge.
“I would say his behavior was predatory, offensive to women,” she said of Bill Clinton.
With that reference out there, Paul must have known it was possible Mr. Gregory would ask him about it. And he did – Gregory referenced the Vogue piece and asked if Paul shared that opinion.
He did. Will that help him win the GOP nomination? It might. If Republican primary voters want a combative candidate, bringing up Clinton’s infidelities is one way for Paul to qualify. It also subtly – OK, maybe not-so-subtly – links Mrs. Clinton to the past and brings up her long and complicated history with both her husband and US public life. And Bill Clinton is much less popular among Republicans today than among Democrats, surprise, surprise.
But it’s also possible that the Lewinsky reference could hurt Paul, both in Republican primaries and in a general election. For one thing, it occurred a long time ago, and the past is a foreign country. It’s now 16 years since the Lewinsky scandal broke. That means 18-year-old voters in the next presidential election will have been newborns when it was fresh news.
For another, Bill Clinton is now quite popular. As noted above, GOP voters are less approving, but even among Republicans, his historical assessment is positive. That’s made clear by a recent Gallup poll. If you take the percentage of Republican respondents to the survey that rate Clinton’s presidency as poor or below average, and subtract that number from the percentage that rate it outstanding or above average, you get a net assessment of plus-14. That’s pretty good.
And Democrats love him. In that same Gallup survey, Clinton’s historical assessment score is plus-68 among Democrats. That’s almost as good as John F. Kennedy’s.
Nor is that popularity simply due to nostalgia for a more prosperous time. Remember, despite his personal misbehavior, Clinton remained broadly popular while the Lewinsky scandal was in the news.
“Clinton weathered the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998 with fairly high personal ratings – averaging 58 percent that year – and ended his presidency on a positive note, with a 57 percent rating in December, 2000,” wrote Gallup’s Lydia Saad in July 2012.
It’s true that his last-minute pardons had a residual effect, driving down his ratings shortly thereafter. But given his enduring popularity, it may not make electoral sense for Paul to revive the Monica Lewinsky controversy for 2016.