Kirsten Gillibrand has made two unlikely allies in her efforts to address the military’s endemic problems with sexual abuse: Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas. On Tuesday morning, the trio stood shoulder to shoulder as the tea party darlings announced that they would vote for Gillibrand’s bill, the most dramatic overhaul of the military justice system since its creation 60 years ago.
The move is a smart one for Rand, a naked presidential aspirant whose women’s-issues resume is currently limited to introducing a personhood measure to the Senate; besides, as a military waste hound, Rand butts heads with the Pentagon anyway. And seeing as the best unified theory for Ted Cruz is that he opposes everything, it’s hard to imagine what he has to lose by saying “yes” to something—for once.
But Cruz and Paul’s alliance with Gillibrand also exposes just how high a bar a women’s issue has to clear before it receives any kind of GOP benediction.
First of all, this should stand as a reminder that most “women’s issues” are only as partisan as politicians want them to be. (The scare quotes are there because in the military, the majority of sexual assault victims are in fact male.) This issue specifically is a no-brainer: as soldiers, the victims demand mutual respect from both parties. The sexual assault rates they are experiencing are jaw-dropping—26,000 victims reporting in 2012 alone—and reached crisis proportions more than a decade ago. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama bear responsibility for allowing this problem to continue unabated, and there are several well-considered plans on the table for fixing it. All of these plans avoid ancillary issues that you might say are too controversial, like the fact that rape victims living on military bases have a very difficult time accessing abortions. (Although in 2012, Republicans John McCain, Susan Collins, and former Senator Scott Brown all voted to fix even that issue. Gillibrand is working on it separately.) The boldest of these plans, Gillibrand’s, actually faces bipartisan opposition—from senators, like Claire McCaskill, wary of disrupting the military chain of command. Broadly, the biggest hurdle for solving this problem continues to be general political disinterest—same as it has always been.
In short, you would have to be pretty cold to the plight of the sexual abuse victims to find a partisan excuse for refusing to help them. And yet think of all the times, in just the past year-and-a-half, that Cruz, Paul, and a host of their Republican cohorts have imposed needless political complications on women’s issues that ought to be pretty straightforward. Leaving aside the legitimately sticky issue of abortion, there was the bruising fight this winter to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act—a two-decades old, perennially uncontroversial funding omnibus for programs that prevent domestic violence and serve its victims. Republicans made hay out of the fact that VAWA had been expanded to give Indian tribes more autonomy to prosecute offenders; to address abuse between same-sex partners; and to give some illegal immigrants suffering partner abuse to obtain temporary visas. Paul and Cruz voted against the reauthorization because each thinks domestic abuse prevention is a state responsibility. Last spring saw a battle royale over the Obama administration’s requirement that employers provide health care plans with birth control coverage. Paul voted for a failed Senate bill to create broad exemptions for employers with religious objections to birth control, saying, “this is a freedom of religion issue”—even though employer-provided insurance is really paid for by wages withheld from employees. Last June, he held an uncontroversial flood insurance bill hostage while he asked the Senate to declare that life begins at conception. Ted Cruz opposes Medicaid expansion in Texas—sorely needed after Texas’s governor blew a $200 million dollar hole in the state’s women’s health case budget—because he says it will “worsen health care options for the most vulnerable,” which is demonstrably false.
I don’t point all this out just to rail about their hypocrisy. No, with Paul and Cruz embracing the issue of military sexual abuse, I find it illuminating to look at what didn’t stand in their way. Because it concerns the military, there was no room for them to debate whether this issue is the federal government’s problem, as both did with VAWA. It is not tied up, as so many women’s issues necessarily are, with the Affordable Care Act broadly, the Medicaid expansion specifically, or funding for female health care services provided by non-abortion-providing clinics with the misfortune of sharing the name “Planned Parenthood”—all nonstarters for a state’s rights slash personhood supporter like Paul and a stringent pro-life figure like Cruz. The women affected by military sexual abuse are not categorically poor or lesbian, and they are not petitioning the government for something—like health care—that the average conservative doesn’t believe is their right. Plus, battling the scourge of military sex assault is a good way to stick it to Obama’s hapless Pentagon.
Given that the list of taboo causes is so long for senators like Paul and Cruz—indeed, for any Republican who doesn’t hail from a Northeastern state—it’s hard to think of another issue besides military sexual abuse that one of their number might be willing to champion. (And Gillibrand’s bill doesn’t just have Cruz and Paul’s blessings; in June, it failed an Armed Services Committee vote that did not break down along party lines.) Never mind how long it has taken many women’s issues to get on the Senate agenda in the first place; poor Barbara Boxer has been fruitlessly working on military abuse since she first arrived in the Senate 20 years ago. Conservatives have self-imposed a silly number of barriers to working on women’s issues. If only all women wore fatigues.
Molly Redden is a staff writer for The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @mtredden.