‘Ladies Man,” read the lead-story headline at the Huffington Post on February 12, plastered above a photo of a smiling Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.). “GOP Savior Votes No on Violence Against Women Act. . . . Hours before State of the Union Response.”
Welcome to the scorched-earth phase of the Democrats’ “war on women” campaign, and the beginning of a ruthless offensive to hold their Senate majority, and possibly to retake the House, in 2014.
Democrats have nearly perfected the following exercise in cynical electioneering: 1) introduce legislation; 2) title it something that appeals to the vast majority of Americans who have no interest in learning what is actually in the bill, e.g., the “Violence Against Women Act”; 3) make sure it is sufficiently noxious to the GOP that few Republicans will support it; 4) vote, and await headlines such as “[GOP Lawmaker] Votes No On Violence Against Women Act”; 5) clip and use headline in 30-second campaign ad; and 6) repeat.
The strategy is abetted by a compliant press. This dynamic was on full display during last year’s presidential campaign, when ABC News anchor and former Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos brought up a 1965 Supreme Court ruling on contraception during a GOP primary debate, just days before the White House announced new guidelines regarding the contraceptive mandate under Obamacare. It was also in evidence when a Huffington Post reporter asked Mitt Romney’s advisers whether their boss supported the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, shortly before Senate Democrats initiated their push for legislation called the Paycheck Fairness Act; the awkward exchange prompted serviceable headlines, such as “Does Mitt Romney Support Equal Pay For Women?” and “Democrats Slam Romney Waffling on Fair Pay Act.”
The recent Huffington Post treatment of Senator Rubio is merely a taste of what is come. Certainty, the Democratic party’s plans for using this playbook extend well beyond 2014.
Of course, one should not overstate the impact of the “war on women” on the outcome of the most recent election, but it certainty had one. “It’s important to point out why the White House is doing this,” says Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum: “Unmarried women. They are a critical base for Democrats, and the basis for the ‘war on women.’ What’s concerning is that it worked.” Indeed, unmarried women backed Obama over Romney by a whopping 68 percent to 30 percent margin. Issues such as contraception and equal pay certainly helped create this gap. If Democrats can motivate these same voters to turn out in 2014, admittedly no small task, Republicans could suffer.
What is clear is that Democrats believe they have found a winning strategy, and plan to replicate it on all fronts in order to maximize their chances for success in 2014.
Senator Kay Hagan (D., N.C.), easily one of the most vulnerable incumbents facing reelection next year, sent out a campaign e-mail Wednesday calling on House Republicans to pass the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). “Lives are literally at stake,” Hagan wrote. “The health and safety of women has to come before petty political games.”
Republicans understand the game that is being played. “It’s been perfectly clear that Democrats are more interested in preserving a political issue than actually help stopping violence against women,” says a House GOP aide.
However, Republicans opponents of the bill are not especially eager to explain their position. When they do, they usually cite concern over a provision that would allow Native American officials to try non-Indian defendants in tribal courts. In this case, as in most other iterations of the “war on women,” the validity of the GOP’s concern is significantly outweighed by its tediousness in the eyes of most voters.
Democrats, on the other hand, have a more straightforward, albeit painfully cynical, message to present to voters. “Violence against women should not be a partisan issue,” Chris Harris, a spokesman for the left-wing political action committee American Bridge, recently told National Journal. “That is an easy message to get across, even to people who don’t follow the legislative process. It’s like opposing the Clean Air or Clean Water Acts.” For those interested, American Bridge has compiled a neat little brief on “Marco Rubio’s Record on Women,” which includes a quote from Tupac Shakur, the late West Coast rapper and author of songs such as “California Love” and “Fake Ass Bitches.”
Some Republicans, such as Representative Shelley Moore Capito (W. Va.), are calling on colleagues to support VAWA. Perhaps tellingly, Capito is also running to succeed retiring Democratic senator Jay Rockefeller in 2014.
Such explicitly women-oriented bills as VAWA and the Paycheck Fairness Act are not the only items queued up in the Democrats’ 2014 arsenal. The policy proposals Obama has offered since beginning his second term — gun control, universal preschool, the minimum-wage hike, immigration reform — may not be specifically targeted toward women voters, but the White House is keenly aware of what the polls are saying. “These are issues that play very, very well with women voters, and further put the Republicans in the corner,” Politico’s well-sourced White House reporter Glenn Thrush said on MSNBC last week. Universal preschool is an especially favorable issue, Thrush said, because “chicks dig it.”
On gun control, women favor “controlling gun ownership” over “protecting gun rights” by a 57–38 percent margin, according to a recent Pew poll. Male opinion is reversed, favoring “gun rights” by 51 to 44 percent. Significant majorities of women support proposals to ban assault weapons, ban high-capacity magazines, ban online sales of ammunition, and track gun sales with a federal database, nearly all of which measures are unlikely to pass Congress owing to Republican (and substantial Democratic) opposition.
Recent polling on the minimum wage suggests overwhelming support among women for Obama’s proposal to raise the current minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $9 per hour. Nearly 80 percent of women support raising the minimum wage, and 64 percent say they “strongly” support it. Support is significant among non-college-educated women (82–9 percent), independent women (82–13), and even Republican women (58–30), a fact recently noted by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who went on to explain: “Today’s Republican leaders clearly feel disdain for low-wage workers.”
None of these policies has a particularly good chance of passing both houses of Congress any time soon. But that has never stopped President Obama and his Democratic allies from pushing such issues as a means to achieve political advantage. Generic-congressional-ballot polls taken since the election consistently show Democrats running ahead of Republicans by several points. If Democrats want to hold, or expand, their majority in the Senate, where a number of red-state incumbents are up in 2014, they are going to need all the wedge issues they can get their hands on, particularly if the economy continues to flounder.
The same is true when it comes to the unlikely, though not unthinkable, prospect of Democrats’ retaking the House. President Obama recently told House Democrats that his second-term agenda would help return Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) to the speakership.
Republican aides are increasingly convinced that taking the House back in 2014 is going to be Obama’s sole focus over the next two years. “Democrats are not presenting a good-faith effort to get legislation passed,” a Senate GOP aide says. “They simply want to have Republicans on record voting for or against, and to use those votes in political campaigns next year. They’re going to label us as obstructionists and extremists, and try to win back the House and a 60-vote majority in the Senate so they can push their real agenda.”
“Look, I don’t blame him for trying to win back the House,” says a House leadership aide. “I just wish he didn’t put that above the priorities of the nation. He’s been on a permanent campaign for four years, and we don’t expect him to stop any time soon.”
Whether or not Republicans are equipped to mount a successful challenge is another question. “This is a battle, every single hour of every single day, to get positive messages out there, so that we are able to communicate to people,” Representative Tom Price (R., Ga.) said at a National Review briefing last week. “You got to push back on the major media that is the complicit advocate for the Left, and push back strongly, and frequently.”
Brad Dayspring, National Republican Senatorial Committee strategist and former spokesman for House majority leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.), has a suggestion for how GOP lawmakers could make his job easier. “I’d be thrilled if they could get Democrats to actually vote on President Obama’s agenda,” he says. “It is far outside the mainstream of what is acceptable in Louisiana, North Carolina, or Montana. [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid [D., Nev.] has gotten away with it, and no one has been willing to call him on it, but I doubt he’s willing to bring the president’s policies, on gun control, cap-and-trade, to the floor right now.”
The key will be making sure Democratic senators such as Kay Hagan (N.C.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Max Baucus (Mont.), and Mark Begich (Alaska) are “forced to take some votes that could be game breakers in their states.” Dayspring cites the GOP’s success in driving conservative “Blue Dog” House Democrats from office by tying them to the president’s agenda as a blueprint to follow.
The Republican Senate aide was more skeptical that the GOP was up to the task. “They’re setting up to throw a Hail Mary with eleven guys in pads on the field, and we’re out there with five guys in T-shirts like we’re playing basketball,” the aide says of Democrats’ 2014 machinations. “Every single Republican should realize exactly what Democrats are doing. The best thing to do is expose their strategy and motives for pursuing that strategy, and talk about it as a united front.”
With respect to the “war on women,” Schaeffer says that conservatives might want to rethink their aversion to gender politics. “Very often conservatives are frightened of playing gender politics, and tend to ignore women altogether, to avoid being seen as pandering, which is a mistake,” Schaeffer says. “There are ways to reach out to women, to address their concerns, without pandering, simply by finding a better way of communicating.”
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review.