Gender Politics Takes Center Stage

Wednesday, 18 Apr 2012 10:20 AM

By Susan Estrich

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As it turns out, Hilary Rosen was wrong about Ann Romney not working a day in her life. She's plainly working right now, as a strategist for her husband's campaign, not a stay-at-home mom.

For all the shock and chagrin about Rosen's comment (which was, of course, poorly put, but was an effort to address the question of whether the Romneys could understand the problems of "people like us," as pollsters usually ask it), it turns out that Mrs. Romney wasn't insulted at all. She considered it an "early birthday gift," a strategic opportunity for her husband's campaign, which she expertly exploited.

As for her husband, the candidate, it turns out that his professed view that all moms are "working moms" does not extend to welfare moms. Just last January at a town meeting, he said, "Even if you have a child 2 years of age, you need to go to work. And people said, 'Well, that's heartless,' and I said, 'No, no, I'm willing to spend more giving day care to allow those parents to go back to work. It'll cost the state more providing that day care, but I want the individuals to have the dignity of work.'"

The "dignity of work," huh? He wasn't talking about work inside the home.

What this is really about is politics and, specifically, gender politics. Polls are showing the biggest gender gap in years, as much as 20 points in President Obama's favor. That's enough to win an election. Or lose it.

So Romney, finally freed from the "contraceptive wars" of the primary campaign (a throwback to the '50s), is trying to convince women that they have been the big losers in this recession. Critics (and objective analysts) say he's playing with the numbers, but at least he's on the right topic. It is, as always, "the economy, stupid," including related issues such as education and healthcare and housing.

After lambasting Obama for telling the Russians that he would have more flexibility after the election (duh!), Romney was overheard by reporters at a fundraiser telling his supporters that he planned to slash government programs (and even departments), notably housing and education, but probably wouldn't tell voters until after the election.

The humor, if you can see it that way, in all this is that in this Internet and social media world, anything you say can be used against you, even if you think you're saying it to a dead mike or said it months ago or in a larger context. Perhaps candidates should be given a revised version of the Miranda warnings every morning.

Rosen's larger point was that when it comes to the economy, healthcare, education, and other such issues, there is a real question about whether the Romneys can relate. And that question is particularly acute for women voters, who tend to earn less money than men, assume more responsibilities for children and focus more on domestic issues than "toughness."

Obviously, most presidential candidates are part of the 1 percent, not the 99 percent. Obviously, you don't have to work (much less by the hour) to understand or empathize with the problems of people who do.

One of the famous lines in American political history came from a miner in West Virginia, who, in response to a young Ted Kennedy's comment that "they say I haven't worked a day in my life," shouted out, "You haven't missed a thing." I'm sure I'm biased because I worked for him and admired him, flaws and all, but I don't know how anyone could say that Ted Kennedy did not understand the problems of people "like us."

The jury is still out on Romney, and the women on that jury are likely to be particularly wary. It's not because Ann Romney, a much-admired woman, a great mom by all reports, a shining role model in coping with serious illness, hasn't worked outside the home. It's because her husband, in candid moments, seems not to have a clue and, in more serious moments, seems not to support policies that are indeed critical for mothers and others.

The one thing that is certain is that these issues are not going away. Women may earn less than men in the workplace, but in this election, they may count for more.

Susan Estrich is a best-selling author whose writings have appeared in newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post, and she has been a commentator on countless TV news programs. Read more reports from Susan Estrich — Click Here Now.













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