Rand Paul seems to have cracked the code.
The Kentucky Republican senator and possible 2016 presidential candidate has found a winning formula for staying in the headlines this winter: dredging up decades-old Clinton scandals and talking about Monica Lewinsky. It seems an unlikely script for a politician who supposedly wants to address America's future.
But what Paul has figured out, and sooner than any other potential Republican presidential candidates, is that every time he (indirectly) references Lewinsky and Oval Office sex, television producers start assembling panel discussions and editors quickly assign articles. It's like sending out the Bat Signal inside the Beltway; a transmission that cannot be denied or ignored.
Paul's attacks this week were boosted by the revelation of personal, decades-old correspondences between Hillary Clinton and Diane Blair, a close friend and confidant to the former first lady. With contemporaneous notes and letters that addressed the Lewinsky scandal and other trials from Bill Clinton's two terms, the newly uncovered archives were presented as big political news. They also gave the media an excuse to wade further into Clinton tumult nostalgia.
For Clinton critics, there appears to be no downside to the strategy. Any fear Paul might have had about the press condemning him likely evaporated weeks ago. Instead of scolding Ryan for looking backwards and attacking a female politician for her husband's distant, personal indiscretions, as well as accusing him without evidence of "violence" against women in the workplace, much of the press has celebrated Paul's Lewinsky star turn. According to CNN's Candy Crowley the Kentucky senator is on a "roll lately." Why? Because he called the former president a "sexual predator." (Crowley dubbed the low-blow maneuver "smart politics.")
Points are rarely deducted for taking the low road against the Clintons. For the press, Clinton name-calling passes for political momentum.
And those lobbying the insults are depicted as savvy. CNN political reporter Peter Hamby claimed Paul's attack on Clinton's personal life represents "a potent message for Republicans at the moment."
Hurling personal attacks against the Clintons might be potent message for Republicans as long as there are Republicans who vote. But in terms of boosting Paul's political aspirations? The strategy doesn't seem to be working. In a national poll released on Tuesday, a McClatchy-Marist surveyed Republican voters and just nine percent of them said Rand Paul was their pick to be the GOP's nominee in 2016. (Rand loses to Clinton by double digits in the poll's hypothetical 2016 match-up.) Even some Republican leaders think the Paul strategy is an electoral loser.
Additionally, a recent Washington Post poll found Clinton to be historically popular for a potential candidate. Still, pundits continue to clamor about all the supposed hurdles her campaign will face. It's a "predestined" "train wreck." "Indecision" is becoming a trademark and she's taking a "wrong turn" and repeating her mistakes from 2008.
For instance on Monday alone, prompted by no new "news" about Clinton and her possible candidacy, Time published a piece detailing '6 Ways Hillary Clinton Is Her Own Worst Enemy," while the Wall Street Journal posted an examination of how having a popular, deep-pocketed would-be candidate like Clinton might actually end up being a bad thing for Democrats.
And that was just Monday....for a campaign that's two years away. The drumbeat of dour and dismissive Clinton analysis has become endless. It's against that all-news-is-bad-news-for-Hillary backdrop that Paul began dredging up the Clintons' private life and events from decades ago. So of course the Beltway press has been eager to cover the story.
The same theme helped drive coverage of the Blair archives. The Beltway press strained to present the material as "bringing fresh insight into the private history of the Clintons," as one CNN report characterized the material. The New York Times echoed the point, insisting "the correspondence reveals new" insights into how Clinton dealt with White House setbacks. While rehashing Clinton scandals, the Times article stressed how "it seems difficult these days to escape" rehashing the Clinton scandals.
Offering some much-needed perspective on the matter, veteran Time columnist Joe Klein, who's been writing about the Clintons for 30 years, belittled the notion that the Blair letters were big news, or that the previously adjudicated sex scandals still matter today. "If Hillary Clinton does run for President, she should be examined carefully-as a public servant, not as a demonic caricature," wrote Klein. "She's far better than that; I hope we are, too."
By early indications, the Beltway press corps is not.