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Women and the Right

September 9, 2012

Much has been made in recent months of the role of women in American politics. Hardly any of the coverage has been positive, especially in its portrayal of the Republican Party. Several weeks ago, Ann Romney stared from the cover of Time Magazine, representative of everything feminine about the GOP: strong, loyal, attractive, God-fearing and proud. She became this season’s GOP pin-up, but in a way far unlike earlier incarnations such as Sarah Palin or Cindy McCain. But how representative is Ann Romney of American womanhood, or even of Republican women? In short, is she really Mitt Romney’s ‘secret weapon’ or merely another prop to be wheeled out on cue to utter appropriate blandishments in regard to this year’s anointed candidate?

American politics has come a long way in a short period of time. In 1952 Nixon’s ‘Checkers speech’ was attacked as being shameless in its tone and content. It would appear, however, that ‘shameless’ has become the norm in American politics as spouses are now routinely presented to talk up the moral character of the candidate, lest there be any doubts.

Despite suggestions that she has been little more than an adornment for Mitt Romney, Ann Romney has emerged in recent months as a symbol of the Republican Party, desperate to rebut allegations that it is involved in a war on women and as a means to soften her husband’s image: Surely anyone with a wife like this can’t be all bad? This is one lady who it would be easy to dismiss as a cardboard cut-out Republican spouse, but her battle to overcome the debilitating impact of Multiple Sclerosis must give one pause for thought. Her tenacity and drive is all the more remarkable for having to overcome this ailment and to endure the tough life that comes with campaigning for the presidency.

In a debate about a war on women, what better artillery to deploy than a smart, attractive and eloquent woman to refute such allegations and present an image of her husband as seen through the eyes of the one who knows him best? Ann Romney’s elevation during the Republican National Convention is no coincidence and the decision to cancel the first planned day was also no tragedy. Over the weekend, the GOP was casting around in an attempt to re-schedule the presentations once they learned that the major networks were unlikely to carry Monday night’s feed (and Ann Romney’s speech) in full. Cancelling in the name of safety in the eye of the storm, allowed for a truncated convention in which Ann Romney would be guaranteed a prime time speaking slot in which she could attract the attention of the watching world.

Her speech was noticeable devoid of references to policy or politics, but aimed instead at the heart. At times it sounded alarmingly Palin-esque, before Mrs. Romney dovetailed into a history of her relationship with her husband and their early life together, a focus designed to appeal to ‘normal women’ not necessarily married to the son of a governor. As such this was not a speech that one can imagine Hillary Clinton having given. Ann Romey’s contribution to her husband’s life and career appears not to be as a consigliere, but rather as the steel in the spine at times of doubt.  Like Barbara Bush before her, it would appear that Ann Romney is the real power in the relationship, driving her husband’s ambition, actively supporting him in his aspiration to higher and higher political office. She is undoubtedly a great asset to her husband and his campaign. It must be asked, however, as to how much she will appeal beyond the traditional Republican base. What she said last night was unlikely to convince undecided voters that she and her husband are anything other than pleasant, moderate, successful and wealthy Americans who have been blessed with good luck and good fortune. They have made their way in the world and who now stand at the brink of political history, about to either enter a pantheon of greatness or a cupboard of also-rans.

There are clearly contradictions and areas of potential conflict. As a recipient of costly medication to treat her M/S, there are risks that Ann Romney could be drawn inevitably into any on-going debate about healthcare in the United Sates. Likewise, it will be intriguing to see how she addresses the potential for conflict that could emerge from the GOP platform document that opposes abortion but which remains conspicuously silent on issues of rape and incest. Irrespective of Governor Romney’s rejection of such a stance, this will, nevertheless be the platform that he and his fellow Republican candidates will be forced to run on and defend in debates and interviews. Even if Romney himself has declared that his potential White House will not be beholden to such a manifesto commitment, there will be plenty of Republicans who will attempt to hold him to this position, including members of congress. Would a President Romney veto a bill to overturn Roe v Wade presented to him by a Republican congress? This hypothetical situation that could all to easily become a tough reality for Ann Romney’s husband to address as President of the United Sates.

The degree to which Americans vote for a candidate on the basis of their wives is debatable. As John Kerry discovered in 2004, having a wife who was viewed unfavorably by the country can certainly be a burden. Clearly Ann Romney is no Hillary Rodham Clinton and she is certainly no Michelle Obama. What emerges from her biography is a headstrong, determined and intelligent women, dedicated to her family and determined to ensure that her husband achieves all that is possible.

Ann Romney has become the leading lady of the Republican Party this electoral cycle, a move aided by the lack of a woman on the ticket for sure, but a move designed also to draw comparisons and quell discussion of a Republican War on Women. In an election year that has seen Sandra Fluke disparaged as a whore by Republican talk show hosts for her views on access to birth control, and in which the odious topic of rape and women’s biological reaction to it has dominated debate, it is perhaps not surprising that some have suggested that the Republican Party itself is engaged in a war on women. Were the party to declare such a conflict, they would surely lose. For one thing, there are far more women than there are Republicans! Neither is it in the Republican Party’s interest to attack women. Female voters have been vital in securing the White House for Democratic candidates in 1992, 1996 and 2008. If the Republican Party could secure the long-term support of the female vote, it would have a virtual lock on the White House.

Interestingly, the Women for Mitt Romney coalition has recently launched a web site, presenting what it claims to be the priorities of American women. Absent are any references to what could be broadly termed ‘women’s issues.’ Indeed, the web site makes a distinct point that these women are Americans first and women second and the issues that are important to them are issues that should be important to all Americans, irrespective of gender.

In the United States women’s reproductive rights becomes a nation issue on an all too regular basis to the national stage, with vague threats to overturn Roe v Wade, before slinking back to the extreme wing of the Republican Party to wait for another moment to try once more to reduce women’s rights to do what they wish with their own bodies. These attempts to wage Culture Wars repeatedly backfire, as in 1992, and lead only to Democratic Party victories, fuelled by women voters.

The comments made by the Missouri Republican Party candidate for Senate, Todd Akin cast a shadow over the Romney/Ryan ticket. Not because they agree with him, they do not. They, along with members of the Tea Party, have made requests that he stand down. His refusal to do so ensures that he remains an embarrassment, not only to himself, his party but also to his nation. The Romney campaign is also forced to continue to address the statement, which diverts time and attention away from the issues that the campaign is focused on; jobs and the economy.

Women are the great-untapped resource for the Republican Party. American women have been responsible for denying the Republicans the White House on several occasions. They were singularly responsible for keeping Bill Clinton in the White House, despite his repeated indiscretions. However, as a party, the Republicans appear unable to decide how best to court their vote.

For the Republican Party to win in November it needs to consider the gender breakdown in the United States:

  • There are 157 million American women and only 151.8 million men.
  • 46.2% of American women voted in the last elections compared to 45% of men.
  • Only 43% of women voted for John McCain compared to 56% that voted for Obama in 2008.
  • Obama only carried 49% of the male vote in 2008
  • Obama appears tied with Romney for the male vote, but is ahead by up to 20% with women.

When Republicans win the female vote, they win elections, as was the case in the 2010 mid terms. The remarks by Todd Akin this week, therefore, are detrimental on a whole variety of levels. They risk identifying the Republican Party with an anti-female agenda and continuing allegations that the party is engaged in a war on women in 2012. This is exacerbated by reports that the Republican Party platform will oppose abortion even in cases of rape and incest. The inclusion of Paul Ryan on the ticket also raises concerns. As a Catholic, Ryan has voted repeatedly for measures in Congress that have won the support of the National Right to Life Committee Group. There are also strong concerns that the Party Platform that emerges at the Convention will severely restrict access to IVF treatment in the United States.

Akin’s remarks place at risk the potential of winning the Senate seat in Missouri that seemed eminently possible until very recently. With the withdrawal of party support, his chances appear doomed. Failure to win the seat places the Republican national strategy in jeopardy and will impact the party’s hopes of retaking the Senate in November.

Akin’s remarks highlight a singular fact: Until the Republican Party learns to successfully woo the female vote, women will continue to keep the party from power. Ann Romney’s drive and support has brought her husband to the cusp of the presidency, within the margin of error in many opinion polls. The question of whether Mitt has what it takes to go the extra mile for victory and secure the female vote, will be revealed in the remaining days of this campaign…

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