Needling Hillary Clinton is something of a favorite pastime for Republicans — while also part of a very conscious effort to undercut her presidential candidacy before it officially gets started.
But while much of the stone-throwing has been left to the paid operatives at America Rising PAC and elsewhere, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has lately seemed to relish in getting in on the action. From Monica Lewinsky to National Security Agency wiretapping to Benghazi, he has been attacking the Clintons frequently and from all angles in recent months.
What is impossible to ignore, of course, is that Paul is a presumed 2016 contender himself. There is some disagreement on the right on what exactly his angle is. Is this simply red meat for the base? Or is he shoring up his general election bonafides? His camp, meanwhile, insists that he’s just talking about the issues he cares about.
But when Paul makes comments like he did Friday at the Republican National Committee’s spring meeting, arguing that Hillary’s handling of Benghazi during her time at the State Department had “precluded” her from being president, it becomes impossible not to see it as 2016 maneuvering.
“The thing is, this is about judgment. And we’re talking about, should we as a country have a commander-in-chief who didn’t provide adequate security in Libya, didn’t send reinforcements and then gave us nothing but spin?,” Paul said.
“My opinion is that Hillary Clinton has precluded herself from ever being considered for that position,” he told the RNC crowd, to the “loudest applause” of the meeting, according to one observer.
Everybody agrees that it can be only upside for a Republican would-be standard-bearer, especially one who is currently a little outside the mainstream, to spend time assaulting one of the figures most hated by the right. It’s good for him, and if does anything to hinder Clinton’s expected eventual candidacy, even better.
“Paul gets points for punching hard against Hillary. The base loves it,” John Feehery, a Republican strategist based in Washington, D.C., told TPM. “And it won’t hurt him to slow her down if he gets the nomination.”
Other GOP operatives see Paul trying to shore up his credentials with the Republican establishment, many of whom have openly declared war on his 2016 ambitions. Focusing a favored foreign policy topic, like Benghazi, could help him solidify his standing in an issue area where he has some differences with the mainstream GOP crowd. “By delving into Benghazi, he opens the door to making them more comfortable about his foreign policy,” Ford O’Connell, another Republican strategist, told TPM.
Or, in the ultimate coup, if Clinton were to stay out of the race because she doesn’t feel up to enduring the negative aspects of a campaign — a possibility that she herself has raised — Paul’s general election odds would presumably improve (along with every other Republican candidate).
“Paul wants Clinton out of the race because GOP mega-donors are not sold on his general election appeal,” O’Connell said. “With her out of the way, Paul can make a much more plausible case to donors as to his general election appeal.”
Paul’s allies have pushed back some against that view of his comments. The issues he has been attacking Clinton over, particularly NSA wiretapping, are long-standing passions. If his contrast with Clinton resonates with voters, that is simply a reflection of his oneness with the electorate.
“Frequently, when politicians do things that resonate with the public, they’re accused of doing it for political reasons,” Mallory Factor, a Republican strategist based in South Carolina who has worked with Paul, told TPM. “From what I know of Sen. Paul, these are things he believes in, and if they’re resonating with the public, it might just be because he believes things that resonate with the public.”
Any 2016 benefits are superfluous — though not unwelcome. Factor readily pointed out Paul’s crossover potential, which stems from his positions on issues like NSA surveillance.
“If I were a Democrat, I’d be concerned that this guy is getting traction with disparate groups,” he said.
Paul still needs to find the balance that other Republican attack dogs are searching for: How much to dredge up the juicier material from the first Clinton White House and how much to focus on more recent developments? His use of Lewinsky was condemned by Democrats and Republicans, though he did try to qualify it by saying that the affair shouldn’t “apply” to Hillary.
He has since spent more time on the NSA and Benghazi. But as long as the Hillary bashing continues to receive the response it did Friday, there’s no reason for Paul to give it up. It’s all gravy as the 2016 jockeying intensifies.