The “war on women” is back. No, not the Republican assault on the legal equality of women: That never happened in the first place. We mean the Democratic campaign to pretend that Republicans are a threat to women’s rights. Now that Obama no longer has a clear lead in the polls, his campaign and its allies are returning to the talking points of an earlier season.
Obama hit them hard in the town-hall debate at Hofstra University. He took credit for signing the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which is supposed to promote equal pay for women, and for forcing almost all employers to cover contraceptives in their insurance plans. He claimed, nonsensically, that Romney believes employers should have a say in whether their female employees have access to contraception — in truth, Romney merely believes employers should have a say in whether they finance that access, along with coverage for abortion drugs. There are Obama’s two great accomplishments for American womanhood: extending the statute of limitations for pay-discrimination cases and reducing the out-of-pocket cost of the Pill. The rhetoric is full of “respect for women”; the strategy holds their votes cheap.
It treats them as gullible as well. The president claimed at the debate that by defunding Planned Parenthood, Romney would reduce women’s access to mammograms. Actually, the organization does not perform mammograms. Michelle Obama is among many Democrats, meanwhile, who are making a selling point of her husband’s belief that “we and our daughters have the right to make decisions about our own bodies” — a tactic whose limits can be inferred, even for those who have not seen the polls that show that women are just as likely to be pro-life as men, from her unwillingness to specify the decisions she has in mind. (Starts with A, not an appendectomy.)
In the hours after the debate, Democrats began making fun of Romney for saying that as governor he had gotten “binders full of women” to find qualified appointees — a comment they would never have criticized, or even noticed, had it been said by one of their own. Almost nobody objects to making a special effort to find qualified women to apply for important positions, and Romney’s phrasing was not even especially awkward. The attempt to manufacture an example of Romney’s condescension or cluelessness is evidence of how much more deeply invested the Obama campaign is in its “war” than in America’s actual wars.
One way for Romney to respond to Obama’s strategy would be to emphasize that he is not anti-women, that Obama’s economy has hurt women, and so forth. He has tried this tack at various times in the campaign, and on some occasions it is appropriate: for example, when responding to a question specifically about women, women’s pay, and the like. Not for the first time, though, we would caution Romney against joining the media and Democrats in their obsession with the gender gap. Most women do not vote based on their sex, any more than most men do; and while women are more likely to vote for Democrats than men are, it is an error to assume they do so because of “women’s issues” (as opposed to because women tend to be a bit more liberal than men on economic, welfare, and military issues).
It is also a mistake to think that a large gender gap is a bad sign for Romney. Take a look at the Gallup tracking poll just released, the one that shows a six-point Romney lead. The gender gap in that poll is larger than the one Gallup found at a comparable point in 2008. Men are ten points more likely than women to back Romney now, where they were only seven points more likely to back McCain. Perhaps needless to say, Romney’s overall numbers are better than McCain’s.
Romney’s best moment in the campaign was the first debate, after which his poll numbers jumped among men and women alike. He made no gender-based appeal in that debate at all. Instead, he concentrated on making the case that he would be a better president than Obama, and in particular that his agenda would be better than Obama’s when it comes to wages, job creation, energy prices, and health care. He should learn from that success — and worry not about the Democrats’ binders full of talking points.