Monday, January 27, 2014

Rand Paul whiffs on ‘MTP’

YOU CAN get a lot done in one appearance on “Meet the Press.” Just ask Rand Paul. In one visit to the long-running NBC news program, the maverick ophthalmologist senator from Kentucky managed to both indulge in false equivalency meant to show how women had already achieved economic parity with men, and to disinter the remains of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, as a joint swipe at former president Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, a possible Paul rival in 2016. Maybe never has a politician achieved so little in so little time.

On Sunday’s “MTP,” Paul launched into a disquisition about the state of American women today, with the women in his own cloistered family world enlisted to stand in for women everywhere.

“This whole sort of war on women thing, I’m scratching my head because if there was a war on women, I think they won,” he said. “You know, the women in my family are incredibly successful. I have a niece at Cornell vet school, and 85 percent of the young people there are women. Law school, 60 percent are women. In med school, 55 percent. My younger sister is an OB-GYN with six kids and doing great. I don’t see so much that women are downtrodden. I see women rising up and doing great things. In fact, I worry about our young men sometimes because I think the women are outcompeting the men in our world [...]

“The women in my family are doing great. That’s what I see in all the statistics coming out. I have, you know, young women in my office that are the leading intellectual lights of our office. So I don’t really see this, that there’s some sort of war on women that’s, you know, keeping women down. I see women doing great and I think we should extol that success and not dumb it down into a political campaign that somehow one party doesn’t like women or that. I think that’s what’s happened. It’s all been for political purposes.”

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Paul was pressed by “MTP” host David Gregory to respond to comments his wife made about former president Bill Clinton in the wake of the Lewinsky affair, in an article in last September’s Vogue magazine (the one where Rand Paul and one of his sons made like Ralph Lauren models).

“I think really the media seems to have given President Clinton a pass on this,” Rand Paul said Sunday. “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.”

When Gregory pressed him on it, Paul admitted that the former president’s actions shouldn’t reflect on the former secretary of state. “It’s not Hillary’s fault, but it is a factor in judging Bill Clinton in history,” he said.

But then, in a very cheap-shot note, Paul made a comment on the Clintons’ close personal and political relationship, saying that “sometimes it's hard to separate one from the other.” Let’s see now, proposing that members of his own family be used as a control sample for average American women ... needlessly reawakening a settled controversy over a former president ... and implying that that president’s wife is fully interchangeable with her spouse. Not a bad day’s work.

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MOVES LIKE this show why Rand Paul has endeared himself to Tea Party regulars. He’s king of the political quick hit, just the kind of opportunist who’d punch you walking down the street. Or try to, anyway. That’s Paul’s weakness; he’s often punching above his weight, but mostly taking swings that fail to connect. Maybe never more so than with this bizarre attack on a former president of the United States.

Paul has a two-pronged problem here. First, he proposes to exhume the matter of one president’s case of moral failure, an issue that was thoroughly adjudicated, something that most of the American public thought was cut and dried and dead and buried more than a decade ago.

There’s no relevancy of this to the current national agenda. Whatever the short-term fallout for the 42nd president, Clinton weathered that ancient storm and has gone on to occupy a bigger, wider role in world affairs, a U.S. president become a global statesman held in high regard. Paul’s smear campaign was dated and out of step the minute he thought of it; such tactics just make him look petty and desperate.

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The second problem for Paul is one of not really thinking of his audience, or knowing who his audience should be if he’s serious about 2016. It’s a given that the Tea Party for whom Paul is ne plus ultra absolutely delights in spanking Democrats, a way of emotionally stoking the fires of the conservative base. Rand Paul could quicken the blood of Tea Party conservatives by saying Bill Clinton had an impure relationship with a ham sandwich; some in that number would swear it was the truth.

But beyond the primary calendar, there’s no electoral future in preaching to the choir, those conservatives already predisposed to sing Paul’s praises. If this is a sop to the forces that be, it’s thematically predictable (and therefore acceptable to those base voters). If this is a bid for pertinence beyond the base, Paul’s got work to do. And he’s making more work for himself as he goes along.

This is partly a matter of demographics. For Paul’s barbs about Bill Clinton to find their mark, people have to remember Bill Clinton. The verdict already handed down in the court of public opinion — one that supported Clinton and largely dismissed his 1998 impeachment as a case of grossly partisan congressional overreach — will suffice for those old enough to remember the Lewinsky scandal.

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PAUL ISN’T thinking of the deep future, and the fact that 2016 will be the first presidential election for those 3.9 million Americans who were born in 1998 — the year Bill Clinton was impeached. For them and others born around the same time, there’s no memory of that event; that makes Paul's effort to reawaken outrage over this even more of a waste of time than it was already.

Americans who weren’t around then couldn’t care less. Americans who were around then care less now than they did in 1998. There’s just too much going on right now, right in front of our faces, that’s way more important.

Paul’s gambit is a cynical revisitation of the past, a trip back to somewhere we shouldn’t have been in the first place. Now, with millions more Americans who either don’t remember anything about it, or who don’t want to ... what’s the point?

Nothing to see here, folks, and certainly nothing new. Whatever the reaction of the base to Paul’s shot at Bill Clinton, there’s no disguising the fact that it’s nothing more than a trip to the butcher shop for more of the same red meat that Rand Paul and other Tea Party acolytes have been feeding their crowd for a long time. Of course if Paul does run for president in 2016, he’s obliged to run the bases in the right order, and that means focusing on the primary season first. That task demands shoring up the conservative-base voters he’d need to win early.

But alienating women voters, and rhetorically conjuring sordid memories of Bill Clinton when millions of voters don’t have memories of Bill Clinton, will do nothing to expand his appeal beyond the base. And ultimately, if he can’t expand beyond the base, he can’t win.

Image credits: Paul: NBC News. Clinton: James Keivom/New York Daily News.

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