The Democrats have their best chance in recent history to win the White House--and women can be an important part of that victory. During the primaries, Bill Clinton ran less well with women than with men. They trusted him less. That began to change at the Democratic National Convention, which was designed, in part, to appeal to women voters. Today, everyone outside of George Bush's immediate family seems to be supporting the Clinton-Gore ticket. That can change, too. But these Democrats seem determined to avoid the mistakes of the past, and that is all to the good. What they need to remember, as the race narrows, is that one mistake to avoid is focusing on women in the summer, then ignoring them in the fall.
Twelve years ago, it took a floor fight at the Democratic convention to get the words "reproductive freedom" into the platform. "Sexual orientation" was slipped in at a late-night committee session, in one of those long sentences opposing discrimination based on race, sex, religion, ethnic origin or country of origin--no one wanted a floor fight on gay rights. After the election, quite a few party leaders, who went on to form the Democratic Leadership Council (dubbed the "white boys' caucus" in its early days), pointed to the sentence on abortion and the inclusion of "sexual orientation" as just the sort of liberal tyranny that was costing the party elections.
So it was a measure of just how much things have changed that, in 1992, when the Democratic Leadership Council assumed control of the Democratic Party, abortion and gay rights were highlighted at the convention. Instead of a floor fight, there was a pro-choice celebration on the convention floor. The women candidates for U.S. Senate, who seemed about the most popular Democrats in America, were scheduled for Tuesday. When there were complaints that scheduling the women against the All-Star game was hardly ideal (a few years ago, no one would have dared complain), they decided to spotlight them Monday as well. Bob Hattoy, an openly gay Clinton staffer, spoke of fighting AIDS, and Elizabeth Glaser left every mother in tears as she described the lessons she learned from her young daughter who died of AIDS.
The Clinton campaign came into the convention believing the bulk of their bounce would come from women. Ross Perot was a lot more appealing to men than to women. This left women more persuadable for Clinton than men, and the convention--at least on Monday and Tuesday nights--was designed to reach out to them.
The party did move to the center on economic issues. The only talk of poor people was from those who hadn't run; and one of the biggest applause lines was about making welfare mothers work. The message was that the Democrats were no longer the party of the very poor and the very liberal: This was a middle-class convention. But this was also the party of women's rights, the party of choice, the party that will do something about AIDS. It's a different definition of moderation than the one that held 12 years ago. Surveys done July 15 suggested that the dominant impression of convention viewers the first two nights was of women; they also showed the beginning of the historic bounce.
Perot's departure from the presidential race changed the arithmetic. The conventional explanation of the change is geographic: the Deep South, in play for the Democrats when Perot was splitting the white vote with Bush, started looking tougher; the West, where Perot's appeal was strongest, started looking better. But the emergence of a two-man race also raises questions about gender politics: Will women remain as important to the Democrats as they were going into the convention? Or, will this election, like the last two, turn out to be a battle for the allegiance of white men?
In the last two presidential campaigns, I've watched as candidates who put women at the top of their lists in the summer moved them to the bottom in the fall. There is something overwhelming about polls that show you running as low as 20% among white males, particularly Southern white males. As more than one consultant has explained, you can't win elections with numbers like that.
Maybe not. But if history is a guide, you also can't win elections if you're a Democrat without strong support from women. When Walter F. Mondale drew even with Ronald Reagan at the 1984 convention, a gender gap helped. When Michael S. Dukakis was ahead of Bush, a gender gap helped even more. Besides, it's easier to keep the focus on women than it was four or eight years ago: The perceived conflict between foreign policy and defense (men) and domestic policy (women) is gone. Unfortunately for the folks in Sarajevo, no one's even talking about foreign policy this year. If this race narrows, and it almost certainly will, Clinton will need women as much as he did coming into the convention.
Abortion is a far more important issue in 1992 than it was four or eight years ago, and Clinton, who has moved decisively in the pro-choice direction, understands that. Indeed, it was striking, even to many long-time feminists, just how far the nominee went on the abortion issue: The endorsement of a Supreme Court litmus test was more than some had hoped for, or even thought wise. Thus the reminder in the acceptance speech Thursday night that Clinton was pro-choice, not pro-abortion.
Being pro-choice is important to the women the Democrats need; convincing them that you can be trusted to help people find jobs and hold on to the ones they have is even more important. Clinton has an economic program, which gives him a major leg up over Bush. But the governor still needs to translate the 20-point plan to the kitchen table. When there's a recession, women are among the last hired who are first fired. Already earning just over half what men do, women get hit hardest by economic hard times. In this middle-class party, the bottom of the middle class has a lot of women in it. And the reality is that women still bear primary responsibility for raising families--which means that overcrowded schools, dangerous parks and inadequate health care for kids are the important women's issues in 1992.
These are also the issues that unite women. The only difference between women who work outside the home and those who make tea and cookies is that most working women also worry about whether they're spending enough time with their kids, while women who aren't earning money have to spend a lot of time worrying about money. What got Hillary Clinton in trouble was not that she works, but the sense she managed to convey, however inaccurate, that she is one woman who puts her career first, who doesn't feel torn and guilty. In their effort to protect their daughter's privacy, the Clintons left most Americans barely aware that they had a daughter, and Hillary Clinton, as the mother, got blamed for that more than her husband did.
Of course, the governor also had his share of character problems in the primaries, particularly among women voters. But at least by the time he got to California, his character problems had less to do with who he did or didn't sleep with than with the sense that he was just another politician. At the convention, Clinton didn't trim. There was no phony love for Jesse Jackson or Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. or the Democratic Congress. He took on the "brain-dead politics of Washington," with no excuses for House Speaker Thomas S. Foley of Washington or Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine. For most women, that sense of integrity is a whole lot more important than whether Hilary can bake better cookies than Barbara Bush, or whether Gennifer Flowers is telling the truth, or even whether Clinton got an induction notice.
Bush is bound to start doing better than he's doing right now. If he recovers, the recovery will no doubt start among white men. Someday, in the not too distant future, someone is likely to come to Clinton and tell him it's enough already with women's issues, let's start eating pork rinds, ride in a tank, get the male surrogates out front and forget about the ladies. I hope he does what his Democratic predecessors didn't do: Ignore them. All the way to the White House.