So the other morning a reader e-mails me a picture of a handful of women demonstrating outside the headquarters of the Ohio Republican party — in what we expert analysts round about this point in the quadrennial election cycle like to call the critical battleground of the Buckeye State. The women each wore two giant pieces of cardboard, front and back. Ah, I thought, a timely protest. These activists understand that, with Obama’s flatline economy drifting inexorably to a $20 trillion federal debt, we’ll soon be living in cardboard shacks in shantytowns in the parking lot of the bankrupt Solyndra factory. Or it’s what they’ll be using for the x-ray plates at your local hospital once the Obamacare rationing kicks in. Or maybe it’s the perfect visual metaphor for the flimsiness of U.S.-government security at its Middle Eastern embassies before the “Death to the Great Satan!” crowd punched through the compound like so much soggy cardboard.
But no. The women were chanting “Equal rights, not binders,” and they were protesting the following remarks by Mitt Romney at the presidential debate:
“And so 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.”
Yes!!!!!!! With one bound, Obama was unbound! Romney had just made the worst presidential-debate gaffe since Gerald Ford declared there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. In the previous weeks, Obama had attempted to have a serious conversation with the citizenry, as befits the electoral process of a mature republic. He had raised the critical questions of our time — free contraceptives for middle-aged coeds, the outrageous right-wing Muppophobic assault on Big Bird — but the public had failed to bite. Now, in one fatal error, Romney had handed him the winning issue: binders!
On the stump, Obama is a man reborn. At a campaign stop outside Cedar Rapids — in what we expert analysts like to call the critical battleground of the Hawkeye State — the president declared: “I’ve got to tell you, we don’t have to collect a bunch of binders to find qualified, talented, driven young women.” No, sir! In the Democratic party, driven young women are dropping into your lap. At the Island Grove Regional Park Exhibition Hall in Greeley, Colo., Joe Biden told the crowd: “When Governor Romney was asked a direct question about equal pay, he started talking about binders. Whoa! The idea that he had to go and ask where a qualified woman was, he just should have come to my house. He didn’t need a binder.” The crowd roared its approval. “What I can’t understand,” continued the vice president, “is how he has gotten in this sort of 1950s time warp in terms of women.”
Yes, indeed. Romney wants to return us to the 1950s, when a woman’s place was in the binder, when every predatory male had his little black binder, and condescending misogynists would interview applicants for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts and smirk, “Why, Miss Jones, you’re beautiful without your binder . . . ” It was the age of patriarchal sitcoms when the little lady would greet her man at the front door with his pipe and binders, where girls were told they could aspire no further than to ace Home Ec and thereby persuade some eligible young man to put a ring file on their finger. We all remember the careless sexist assumptions of the so-called family shows of those days — Leave It to Binder, Ozzie and Binder, Binder Knows Best, My Three Binders, Gilligan’s Binder, The Binder Bunch — until eventually the mold was broken by The Mary Binder Moore Show in the early Seventies. By then, feminists across the land were burning their binders, and Erica Jong had popularized the “zipless file.” As Gloria Steinem famously said, a woman needs a binder like a fish needs a three-tab manila hanging folder. Soon American wives were filing for divorce.
But now, after four decades of movement on women’s rights, Romney wants to go back to when they were stationary. What sort of man looks to fill his cabinet with binders? As I write, Joe Biden is winding up a barnstormer of a speech before the National Organization of Women: “I wanna tell y’all they’re gonna put y’all back in binders. Yaaaaaaalllll,” he added, helpfully. “What part of ‘y’all’ don’t y’all understand?”
On MSNBC, Chris Matthews and Ed Schultz deplored Romney’s descent into chauvinist “code words.” “To the sexist Republican base,” said Chris, “‘binders’ is a dog whistle.”
“A wolf whistle,” said Ed.
“Exactly,” said Chris. “It’s like asking for watermelon at the NAACP luncheon, not that I ever did that and it was a long time ago.”
“Or addressing the LGBT group and asking the guy if he’s got the new Judy Garland box set,” said Ed.
“That was you, not me,” said Chris.
“But underneath the code language we all know what’s really being said here,” argued Ed. “Send in the women, and I’ll get out my E-Z one-touch hole punch.”
“Okay, moving on,” said Chris, “here’s a leaked video of Romney addressing the board at Bain Capital while he was closing factories throughout the Midwest. It’s a bit muffled, but if you listen carefully you can hear Romney arguing that it would make more economic sense for him to give every American woman cancer and outsource matrimony to a binder full of mail-order brides from the Philippines.”
“Why do you think they call them Manila folders?” added Ed. “We all know the code words.”
“Why do you think he founded Staples in the first place?” demanded Chris. “What kind of a deal do you figure he’s getting on the binders?”
Sure, the Republicans still insist on bringing up trivial, peripheral distractions like Benghazi, Obamacare, multi-trillion-dollar debt, unsustainable entitlements, permanent long-term unemployment, and the looming January 1 “fiscal cliff.” But Democrats know that, if Romney gets his way, there’ll be nothing at the bottom of the fiscal cliff to break your fall except binders. In RomneyWorld, when the mullahs drop the big Iranian nuke, there’ll be nothing crawling out from the irradiated rubble except cockroaches and binders — or some hideous mutation of the two: bindroaches, vile creatures prowling the land on three pairs of jointed rings ready to snap shut on your daughters’ ankles as they attempt to access the last Planned Parenthood clinic in America.
Finally, the Democrats have found their voice! From Wisconsin the Badger State to Massachusetts the Binder State, women and sensitive New Age men in touch with their filings are standing up as one to Mitt Romney: Keep your Averys off my ovaries! This is the most important election of our lifetimes: Make it a non-binder resolution.
Some years ago, the then–French defense minister, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, complained that the Americans were committed to “the organized cretinization of our people.” I’ve never accepted the thesis, but I have to say that, in the final weeks of his reelection campaign, the first man in history to spend $6 trillion and leave no trace is doing a magnificent job of cretinizing his own base. In the binders of history, this one will be worth its own tab.