Gentlemen, gentlemen, there’s no reason to fight over us. Really.
Well, in fact, I suppose there is.
It was the undecided voters invited to the town hall at Hofstra University who were the nominal target audience of the presidential debate Tuesday night, but it was women -- the majority of voters and the gender gap that Democrats have relied on, and that Republicans hope to close -- who were being wooed by President Obama and GOP rival Mitt Romney.
So that’s naturally where some of the debate ended up, along with some of the post-game analysis.
Obama’s stances on women’s issues are well known. He favors abortion rights, and the first act he signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to remedy pay discrimination against women. So when undecided voter Katherine Fenton asked about the wage gender gap, it was a pitch right over the plate for him. It’s clear where he stands, and it’s also clear where he thinks the bulk of female voters stand on these matters.
Romney was the first out of the box to mention women, pointing out that 3.5 million more women now live in poverty under the Obama administration. It’s true. Yet, as Slate magazine says, women in difficult economic times can find themselves harder hit because of wage gaps and the uncertain nature of low-wage and part-time work.
Romney’s other appeals to women were less direct than the president’s, partly because he’s made vulnerable by stances like his plan to cut Headstart programs and to end Obama’s healthcare reform law, which includes no-co-pay contraception coverage.
Romney’s instant inadvertent hit was his reference to "binders full of women." He assigned his gubernatorial staff to go find good female applicants for his Massachusetts Cabinet (and he cited a SUNY Albany study that found he had more women in appointed positions than any other state).
A number of debate watchers seized on Romney’s wonderfully awkward image of binders full of women; by the end of the debate, the phrase had its own Facebook and Tumblr pages. And they seized too on Romney’s conditional "if" in his statement that "I recognized that if you’re going to have women in the workforce, that sometimes you need to be more flexible."
It may have been a poor word choice, but to some viewers, it symbolized a deeper Romney attitude. If? What year is it, again?
Romney’s point about flexibility was a good one, as far as it went, which was not far enough. He boasted that his Massachusetts chief of staff, Beth Myers, who also headed the search committee for Romney’s VP nominee, told Romney that she couldn’t work late because she needed to get home by 5 to make dinner for her children.
That’s fabulous for her -- to have the clout to lay down those rules. But what about most working women -- those who have to work part time and take low-paying jobs and whose only "flexible time" is taking time off without pay to attend to family matters?
And why would Romney stop flexibility at women? Why shouldn’t fathers have flexibility too? This isn’t the "Mad Men" workplace anymore -- or is it in some quarters?
And what about that voter’s question on equal pay? It’s not a question Romney answered, although he spoke a lot about economic opportunities and jobs in general. Equal pay status would give women the leverage to insist on things like the flexible scheduling Romney’s chief of staff enjoyed. And Obamacare would give men and women the chance to get health insurance whether or not they work 40 hours a week, or at a company with its own healthcare coverage. Isn’t that empowering? Doesn’t that boost the workforce?
In the debate, Obama again reached for the economic appeal for women when he declared that equal pay was "not just a women’s issue, this is a family issue, this is a middle-class issue," thereby rounding all the bases on the Democrats’ pitch to female votes.
Romney’s team, Obama said, had punted when asked the candidate’s stance on the Ledbetter act and said it would "get back" to the reporter. Politifact rates this claim as "mostly true." Romney said later that he had "no intention" of changing the law and "certainly support[s] equal pay for women," although by what means, he didn’t say.
It was Obama who also brought up Romney’s pledge to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood -- none of which by law can go to abortion anyway, only to the women’s health services Planned Parenthood provides. And Obama again pitched the larger argument, contending that his healthcare law’s coverage of contraception is not just a health issue, "it’s an economic issue."
To which Romney said something that caught my ear. "Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives." What, exactly, does that mean?
He challenged the president there, adding, "And the president's statement of my policy is completely and totally wrong."
"Governor," replied the president, "that's not true."
As my colleague Robin Abcarian pointed out, Romney was walking a fine line here because he doesn’t think religious employers (like Catholic-owned hospitals, even though they serve and hire non-Catholics) should have to cover contraceptive care.
Does his statement mean that American doctors should be able to prescribe contraceptives? Hardly controversial, and hardly likely.
Does it mean that women should be able to go to the drugstore to buy them? Or that they should have to pay for them entirely out of their own pockets, if their insurance chooses not to cover contraception? Or does it mean contraceptives should be covered by health insurance? And that health insurance coverage should be cheap and available to all women?
He didn’t say; it sounded pro-woman enough without the specifics, I suppose.
But he prefaced it with this: "I’d just note that I don’t believe that bureaucrats in Washington should tell someone whether they can use contraceptives or not. And I don’t believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care or not.’’
Again, how do you parse that? What bureaucrats are trying to tell women they can’t use contraceptives? Some Republican legislators have tried to, but who else? As for employers, Obamacare policies require almost every policy to cover contraceptives with no co-pay. Romney’s not in favor of that, for religious reasons, but his statement sounded like the opposite.
Abortion rights did not come up in the debate, which was probably a good thing for Romney, because he has been bedeviled by his own seriously shifting position on this since he ran for the Senate against Democrat Ted Kennedy in 1994. That 1994 Romney sounded more like the Catholic Joe Biden, embracing his own personal faith and conscience but refusing to impose it on others.
Here’s what Romney said in 1994: "I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country. I have since the time that my mom took that position when she ran in 1970 as Senate candidate. I believe that since Roe vs. Wade has been the law for 20 years, that we should sustain and support it, and the right of a woman to make that choice….
"I have my own beliefs … one of them is that I do not impose my beliefs on other people." He referred to the death of a close relative from an illegal abortion, and "since that time my mother and my family have been committed to the belief that we can believe as we want but we will not force our beliefs on others on that matter, and you will not see me wavering on that."
But by 2005, Romney was saying: "I am pro-life. I believe that abortion is the wrong choice except in cases of incest, rape and to save the life of the mother." And at a GOP debate two years later, he declared that legal abortion had "cheapened the value of human life."
The year 1912 saw the first elections in which California women were able to vote, years ahead of their sisters in most other states, who were finally allowed to cast ballots under the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
A hundred years later, women’s ballots have become powerhouses. Where, this time, will they use that power?