If Republicans ever want to win the women vote, they really need to stop talking about women. They are just terrible at it.
One of the more surprising poll trends coming into last night’s debate was that Romney seemed to be picking up steam with women voters – and not simply because his ruggedly virile supply of cash and boy-making sperm make the ladies weak at the knees. Because of this unexpected trending, I had fully expected Team Romney to be preparing the Governor with one thought in mind: Misstep wherever you like on tax or foreign policy issues, just don’t put your foot in it on any of the women’s issues questions. When the inevitable women’s issue question came it was low hanging fruit, requiring but a quick and obvious answer. It should have been a cakewalk.
And yet as he answered with what was obviously a well coached and pre-canned response, Mitt Romney proved once again that whenever Republicans try to connect with women they invariably come off sounding condescending and chauvinistic – even when what they’re saying is factually undeniable.
Here was the question:
In what new ways do you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?
The obvious response – the only response for a conservative Republican – was to say some variation of this: “As a champion of the free market, I believe everyone should be paid exactly what their contributions are worth – no more, and no less. That should be just as true for women as it is for men, and discrimination should never be tolerated.” That’s all Romney had to say. Hell, that’s all Romney should have said. And yet, like a radio show host that just can’t leave well enough alone, Romney decided to swing for the fences:
Thank you. And important topic, and one which I learned a great deal about, particularly as I was serving as governor of my state, because I had the chance to pull together a cabinet and all the applicants seemed to be men.
And I — and I went to my staff, and I said, “How come all the people for these jobs are — are all men.” They said, “Well, these are the people that have the qualifications.” And I said, “Well, gosh, can’t we — can’t we find some — some women that are also qualified?”
And — and so we — we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet.
I went to a number of women’s groups and said, “Can you help us find folks,” and they brought us whole binders full of women.
I was proud of the fact that after I staffed my Cabinet and my senior staff, that the University of New York in Albany did a survey of all 50 states, and concluded that mine had more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America.
Now one of the reasons I was able to get so many good women to be part of that team was because of our recruiting effort. But number two, because I recognized that if you’re going to have women in the workforce that sometimes you need to be more flexible. My chief of staff, for instance, had two kids that were still in school.
She said, I can’t be here until 7 or 8 o’clock at night. I need to be able to get home at 5 o’clock so I can be there for making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school. So we said fine. Let’s have a flexible schedule so you can have hours that work for you.
There are a lot of pundits that are giving Romney high praise for that answer (Andrew Sullivan called it Mitt’s “strongest” answer at the time), but just about all of them are men. I suspect that as the week goes on we will see that women found the answer to be condescending, and that what Romney’s team believed would bring him female votes will actually cost him some.
Let’s leave aside the fact that Mitt’s feel-good anecdote about being a champion of women didn’t actually happen (and that in fact he reduced the number of women in senior-level positions), and instead focus on what he said.
According to Mitt, while going through all of the applications for his cabinet he noticed that there were no women. He immediately picked up the phone and called women’s groups to ask if they knew where he could find some qualified ladies.
If you are a man of a certain age, I suspect this answer sounds pretty good so far. Hey, he’s trying to find a decent woman, right? However, if you’re a woman I suspect the biggest takeaway is that the Governor and his transition team knew of stacks and stacks of men they thought were qualified to manage people and departments, but couldn’t think of one woman. If I’m a woman, that just sounds terrible.
Far worse was his talking about flextime. Again, if you’re a man of a certain age I imagine this answer sounded pitch perfect. After all, women like to be home with their kids, right?
It is absolutely true that flextime can rightly be perceived as a women’s economic issue. Child care issues sometimes demand that parents who might be able to work 40 hours a week can’t always work 9:00 to 5:00, and for them flextime is a Godsend. Because many mothers are single – and because, like it or not, in our culture it is still the expectation that in households with two working parents it should be the mother who bears child responsibilities – access to flextime actually does effect women disproportionately to men. However, the question Romney was asked didn’t have to do with workplace logistics, it had to do with workplace equality. Because of this, his response was especially egregious.
Despite what Romney suggests, the truth is that flextime isn’t really an issue for executives. Most higher paying positions are salaried, and as such are judged upon a specifically defined set of outcome criteria. They don’t need flextime, because flextime is basically built into their job. The kinds of positions that often require flextime are lower paying jobs such as administrative assistants, file clerks, receptionists and data input typists. So when answering a question about general female economic inequality in the workplace, Mitt inexplicably responded with an answer about administrative assistants, file clerks, receptionists and data input typists. Now, it is true that not everyone is keenly aware of who does and doesn’t need flextime. But you know what subset of voters is keenly aware of this? Women.
In addition, the unspoken assumption in Mitt’s response was that a male employee would not need to take care of children at home, but a female employee certainly would. Like many Republican responses to women’s issues, I know this chafed the very women it was intended to mollify. Plus, if there’s pushback from the Left on this it will invariably mean that conservative pundits and talk show hosts will go on the defensive and make arguments about why men really are different from women in the workplace. They just won’t be able to help themselves, and that hole they dig for themselves (and Mitt) will just keep getting deeper.
If Romney wants to court the female vote, he needs to keep it simple and direct, and not go off on these attempts to “connect” with women in a touchy-feely kind of way. It’s just not his strength, and it will hurt him far more than it will help him.
 Seriously? Going through the applications? Apparently in Massachusetts cabinet vacancies are simply employment opportunities you post on monster.com, not a team of experts hand-selected by the Governor.