Rand Paul, who is weirdly a potentially serious contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, got asked on Meet the Press this past Sunday about a comment his wife had made about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. His answer was revealing, I think, of a mindset Republicans are going to struggle with mightily should Hillary Clinton run for president. I bring this up not because I think Paul's comments are all that important in and of themselves, and not because Republicans are likely to spend a good deal of time talking about Monica Lewinsky come 2016. But there's an impulse when it comes to Hillary Clinton that presents a real danger for Republicans. There are so many things they hate about her and her husband that they barely know where to start. And that hatred could well be their undoing.
If you heard "Rand Paul attacked Hillary Clinton over Monica Lewinsky," you've been slightly misled. First of all, it was David Gregory who brought it up (here's the transcript), and second, you can see in Paul's answer the conflict between his rational brain, which says, "This is not what we should be talking about," and his lizard brain, which says, "Grrr! Clinton!" A couple of times he tries to say that the issue is one for Bill Clinton's "place in history," but he can't stop himself from trying to make the case that Democrats are hypocrites because they criticize Republicans for waging a "war on women," when Bill Clinton had an affair with an intern fifteen years ago.
Even after all this time, and after the Clinton impeachment turned out to be such a disaster for them, so many conservatives still can't wrap their heads around the idea that other Americans don't think about that episode in the same way they do. For them, it's a tale of crime and injustice, the injustice being the fact that Bill Clinton got away with it. It goes right to the heart of what they hated so much about him. It wasn't that they had policy differences with him, though they did. What angered them so much about Bill Clinton was that he was better at politics than they were. He beat them again and again for so many years, and nothing embodies their frustration over those defeats more than the Lewinsky scandal. For god's sake, they cry, the guy was caught diddling a twenty-something intern in the White House, and he still managed to wiggle his way out of it!
So when Rand Paul or any other conservative hears the name Lewinsky, the immediate emotional reaction he has is one of anger, frustration, and contempt for the Clintons. But most Americans don't have the same reaction. First of all, they aren't that angry about it anymore. It was a decade and a half ago. And second, their memories of the whole sordid affair are as much about Republicans going too far—an impeachment that never should have happened, Ken Starr's salacious and obsessive pursuit of Clinton, an opposition party that grew more desperate and deranged the clearer it became that they'd never take down their white whale—as they are about the President's misdeeds.
As for Hillary, well as far as they're concerned she's complicit in everything Bill did, and then you can add to that the contempt they have for her as a powerful woman. You just cannot overestimate the degree to which Hillary Clinton brings out the ugliest misogynistic feelings and sexual insecurities in so many people (not all of them conservatives, I would add). This is something I've written about before, and I'm sure I'll be writing about it again, because it's going to be a central part of any campaign in which she's involved.
There are few things more fundamental to smart political strategy than the understanding that other people may not share your beliefs, and may not have the same emotional reactions you do to certain people and events. That understanding is what allows you to make thoughtful decisions about how to persuade the number of people you need to achieve your political goals, whether it's passing a piece of legislation or winning an election. This is something Republicans often struggle with, but when it comes to the Clintons, they're absolutely blinded by hate. To take just one example, if Hillary runs, we're going to be hearing a lot about Benghazi, because Republicans are not only sure she did something scandalous, they're also sure that if they just hammer away at it long enough, everybody else will become convinced, too. But just like with Bill's impeachment, exactly the opposite is likely to happen: the more they talk about it, the more voters will become convinced that they've taken leave of their senses.
And that, more than anything else, may be what gives Hillary Clinton such a good chance of winning in 2016. When they're looking at her, her opponents just can't see straight.