In the Lewinsky Redux, a Religious Message

Led by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Republicans are reprising the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, as an odd reaction to Democratic charges they are waging a war on women. The conservative Washington Times sees it this way:

The Kentucky Republican and likely 2016 presidential candidate is making a habit of ripping former President Bill Clinton, dubbing the 42nd president a “sexual predator” and suggesting that it is hypocritical of Democrats to cast the GOP as anti-women when they celebrate someone who preyed on women working under him in the workplace.

At the Washington Monthly, Ed Kilgore has a theory<

There is, however, a meta-message here that is worth thinking through. Many conservatives sincerely believe that abandonment of a stoutly patriarchal society has been a disaster for women: they’ve lost the stability of “traditional marriage,” the presumption men will be held accountable for their material welfare, the chivalric accommodation of their weaknesses, the ability to concentrate on child-rearing and home-making, and most of all, the exemption from the terrible burdens of bread-winning, decision-making, and sexual autonomy. In exchange they have obtained all sorts of empty tokens of independence—some actively unnatural, like the “right to kill their babies”—while men have been liberated to act out on their true nature as perpetual children and sexual predators.

My theory is a bit different, and, like Kilgore’s, requires forgetting for a moment that Rand Paul’s favorite new-old thing is to go after the Clintons. That’s so horse race! Think instead about the GOP’s strategy to portray its own elected women as virtuous patriots who put family and Christianity first—making them not just better exemplars of biblical womanhood, but better exemplars of political leadership.

The Republicans don’t have a lot of women to work with for this rebranding campaign (there are only 23 Republican women in the House and Senate combined), but they’re deploying what they’ve got in the anti-war-on-women effort. First came Cathy McMorris Rodgers, with her faith in God, family, and a fundamentalist education. Another example is South Dakota Rep. Kristi Noem, whose 2013 interview700 Club is being replayed on the network’s The Brody File.

“Even though ‘Kristi the congresswoman’ pushes for conservative policy,” host David Brody tells us, “as a believer in Jesus Christ, she’s got something even bigger on her mind.” 

“You know He placed me there, yes, to work on policy,” Noem tells Brody, “but maybe my biggest job was to minister to individuals . . . . The way that He’s going to fix this country may be by changing people’s hearts and getting them more geared toward Him,” she added. “And that’s the quickest way we’re going to get stuff done.” Brody says Noem might be the next Sarah Palin.

Rand Paul, of course, is not unfamiliar with the religious imperatives and sexual mores of the Christian right, even as he hasn’t been seen as a natural fit with conservative activists as a spiritual warrior for the “Christian nation” or ardent defender of a biblical worldview. Like his father, he’s not apt to tell his salvation story but he’ll balance that deficit that with speeches on religious freedom or abortion.

His father, in running for the GOP nomination in 2012, built a shadow religious right following, made up of homeschoolers, birthers, Birchers, Calvinists, Pentecostals, Mormons, and others who were disenchanted with the Christian right’s business as usual, which many of them saw as a sell-out to party politics and an abandonment of true biblical values. Their extreme anti-government views often get them mislabeled as libertarians—but biblical authoritarianism is their guide.

The elder Paul built this movement with former Bush evangelical outreach architect Doug Wead, who also claimed disenchantment with the very political apparatus he played such a crucial role in creating. Campaigning for Ron Paul in Iowa in 2011, Wead repeatedly referredto the younger Paul as “a possible future president himself.” Rand Paul knows he must play both to the theo-political groundwork laid by his father and the Beltway religious insiders that animate Republican politics. The anti-Clinton stuff is standard conservative fare, but there’s more to it.

When seen in conjunction with his party’s efforts, the broader message of Paul’s anti-Clinton effort becomes clear. Hillary Clinton, in both her personal and political life, is a defender of the predator president (a metaphor for Democratic leadership that, in the religious right’s view, is forcing terrible things like birth control coverage on women and religious objectors). Rodgers and Noem are not just the anti-Hillary—godly, biblical, virtuous women who put family and Jesus first—but they are portrayed as the counterpoint to the truly sexist Democrats who advance and defend the “predator” mentality. And they’re working mothers—that’s their rejoinder to the charge that Republicans oppress women.

The revival of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair is not just about attacking the Clintons. It’s about initiating a revival of women like Rodgers and Noem, who the Republicans are using at once to tell voters they aren’t anti-women, and to reassure their own base that women do have a special God-given role, and it’s in Washington.