Tuesday night was supposed to be another big step in the Republican rebranding, but it didn't really turn out that way. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio proved more Aqua- than Superman. And Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, the dark horse darling, turned into something of a snooze inducing sleep sheep.
But maybe GOP-ers can take solace from this: it doesn't really matter. Because what Rubio and Paul did mere hours before their respective turns on the national stage likely did more long-term damage to the GOP brand than any speech could fix.
Our story starts all the way back in 1993. That's when the Senate Judiciary Committee, under the leadership of then-senator Joe Biden, issued a report showing that women were disproportionately falling victim to some heinous crimes, crimes that were also less likely to be successfully prosecuted. In other words, if you robbed someone you were more likely to face punishment than if you raped them.
This, understandably, caused some pause. How could our criminal justice system be serving women so poorly? And what could be done to fix it?
One option was to continue to work at the state level to make things better, and that's what some people did. But others looked at the years leading up to the Biden report and recognized that states had been doing the best they could to stop violent crimes against women for decades and their best wasn't enough. That helped pave the way for federal engagement: the Violence Against Women Act, also known as VAWA. It's been on the books for 20 years now.
Two days ago, 22 Republican senators decided that was a mistake. And it wasn't just any group of 22—it featured many of the party's leading lights: the presidential frontrunner, Rubio; his Tea Party rival Paul; two other Republicans who've occupied an increasing share of the national stage: Ted Cruz of Texas and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin; the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky; and the immediate past head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, John Cornyn. They all voted against reauthorizing the law.
Why? Well, they offered all sorts of reasons, but most seemed aimed at the same place: the bill was an overreach. It made the definition of domestic violence too broad. It trampled the rights of defendants. It was doing something best left to the states.
If you think it unusual to hear some of these arguments coming out of the mouths of conservatives, you're right. Under ordinary circumstances, it's conservatives who prefer the sledgehammer approach to criminal justice, but here they say that's the problem. And its conservatives who for decades have done more than anyone else to gut the due process rights of defendants. But now they rally to the cause of those accused of domestic violence? That's quite a thing.
And sure, we hear the 10th Amendment argument raised just about every time a conservative wants the federal government to stop doing something. But here's a news bulletin: the reason the Violence Against Women Act came into being in the first place was because the states weren't getting it done. The 10th Amendment isn't like putting on ruby slippers. Invoking it over and over again doesn't make the federal government go away.
In any case, it's hard not to see something a little less grandiose than constitutional scholarship underlying the Republican efforts. In the Heritage Foundation's one pager urging a no vote, its authors warn that provisions of the bill will "increase fraud and false allegations [of abuse], for which there is no legal recourse", and that "Under VAWA, men effectively lose their constitutional rights to due process, presumption of innocence, equal treatment under the law, the right to a fair trial and to confront one's accusers, the right to bear arms, and all custody/visitation rights." The bill is intended to protect women from deadly harm, but its pretty evident who the Heritage Foundation is preoccupied with protecting.
Think that's an unfair characterization? Maybe. But this is a party whose right wing has found reason to oppose equal pay for women; which questioned whether Hilary Clinton was faking an emotional response at the Benghazi hearing; which raised objections to women serving equally in the military; and which seems to have developed a fetish for transvaginal ultrasound. Etc.
Now, to be sure, there were 23 Republicans in the Senate who found it within themselves to set aside whatever convoluted ideological calculations swept up their brethren, and voted yes on Tuesday. And that's a good thing. But for the party that lost women in the last election by double digits, it's hardly enough.
If Republicans really want to become more appealing to more of the electorate, here's some advice: The tone ain't great, but the tone ain't the problem. When so many of your party leaders believe what these guys do, to mangle a phrase from James Carville, it's the you, stupid. You're the problem.
And you might want to try and fix that first.