Just a week ago, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a leading GOP figure for libertarian policies geared around reducing the size, scope, and spending, was assailed at Time.com for prematurely declaring that the "war on women" is over and the women had won. According to Paul:
"The whole thing with the War on Women, I sort of laughingly say, 'yeah there might have been,' but the women are winning it."
After wrangling with stats that showed women surging ahead of men in some areas and lagging behind in others, Charlotte Alter wrote,
The fact that Rand Paul thinks the war on women is over means he had no idea what it was about in the first place. Nobody accused the Republican party of standing in the way of women going to veterinary school– women's financial and educational advancements are propelled by social changes that aren't being specifically debated on the Senate floor. The "War on Women" is about abortion rights and access to affordable contraception more than anything, and Paul is fighting against both of them.
Yesterday in The New York Times, columnist Maureen Dowd interviewed Paul and seemed more sympathetic to him, even dubbing him "not-so-bland," which practically passes for a Mae West-style come-on from the the author of Are Men Necessary? The junior senator has figured out a legitimate way to "make Monica haunt Hillary's dreams."
Paul reiterated to me that he disdains the Democratic "hypocrisy within the party that wants to blame Republicans for somehow not liking women, that somehow we're this party that has some kind of war going on, and they have as a leader and one of the most prominent fund-raising people in their party still to this very day, a person who seems in some ways to have his own private war on women."
He's speaking of Bill Clinton, of course. Dowd continues:
Veterans of Hillaryworld admired Paul's savvy appeal to the base. As one noted dryly, "When you're playing with the hard-core base, there's no statute of limitations on crazy fooling around with an intern in the Oval Office."
I agree that Paul's aim was true. He distracted from the Republicans' abysmal war on women by pointing at an abysmal moment in feminist history, when feminists betrayed their principles to defend a president who had behaved in a regressive way with women because he had progressive policies on women.
Instead of owning up, Bill Clinton forced his humiliated wife, a feminist icon, and women in his cabinet — Madeleine Albright and Donna Shalala — into the dreadful position of defending him when he was lying about his conduct.
Paul also tells Dowd, "I've never met a Republican who was against birth control or who thought that somehow we would try to prevent women from having birth control."
Is Rand Paul accurate when he says that Republicans aren't against birth control? I did a quick search for GOP leaders who have inveighed against the very idea of contraception. Not an exhaustive search by any means, but nothing turned up, even among the strongly Catholic folks such as Rick Santorum. There's no question that the Republicans are often, even typically, against state-funded birth control, and strongly against forcing employers to cover contraceptives via Obamacare mandates (among liberals and those further out on the left, there is often no distinction between allowing something and having the government pay for it).
There's no question that Paul is strongly anti-abortion. Yet contra Charlotte Alter in Time, it's far from clear that being in favor of abortion in any way reflects gender. As Gallup has shown for decades, men's and women's positions on abortion are essentially the same (indeed, by some measures, men are more supportive of abortion). Pew documents that women are more likely to favor the contraceptive mandates in Obamacare and they are more likely to identify as Democrats (in 2012, for instance, about 52 percent of women identified as Democratic, compared to about 42 percent of men; while the numbers change, that 10-point gap has stayed pretty constant).
Yet it's clear that on at least some issues, Republicans who follow Rand Paul's lead on foreign policy and war are in synch with female voters. Women, Pew finds, are substantially more likely than men to favor diplomacy and cast a cold eye on military strength as a means to "achieving peace."
The "War on Women" meme isn't going away any time soon, of course, but as women achieve economic parity with men (as Alter notes, women make up 57 percent of college students and 48 percent of med school grads; Millennial women make 93 percent of what their male counterparts do), it's likely that gender will fade as a clear indicator of voting preference. If Rand Paul can charm Maureen Dowd—and score points with "veterans of Hillaryworld"—while convincing women that he's not an existential threat to contraception, he may be a national GOP figure who will close the gender gap in 2016. In his 2010 Senate race, after all, he won women by 1 percentage point over his challenger.