Politics & Policy

The War on Women 2.0

More silly, but less effective?

Democrats hoping that women voters will rescue them from increasingly difficult campaigns have entered the silly season of the “war on women” — and maybe the hypocritical one, too.

“The Republican War on Women is back, and it’s even more appalling than ever,” the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee trumpets in a list-building exercise. How appalling? Supporters of Senator Kay Hagan (D., N.C.) can’t believe that Republican state-house speaker Thom Tillis referred to her by her first name during their first debate.

“We saw women on social media in particular who were bothered by his tone and more than anything they were bothered by his record,” Hagan spokeswoman Sadie Weiner told Politico after her boss turned in a forgettable debate performance.

Tillis has known Hagan for years. “This race isn’t about titles,” he told Politico. “It’s about results.”

For Democrats to avoid another “shellacking” this fall, they’ll need such tactics to work. “They’re fanning outrage,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Brook Hougesen. “It illustrates just how desperate they are. It’s their Hail Mary.”

The play worked in 2012, when President Obama’s campaign gasped about Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” comment, Senator Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) capitalized on Representative Todd Akin’s truly egregious “legitimate rape” comments, and Democratic strategists portrayed Republican opposition to Obamacare’s contraception mandate as an attempt to deny women access to birth control.

This time, Republicans have responded by supporting over-the-counter sales of birth control, nominating more women to run for Senate, and running candidates not prone to the kind of mistakes that undid Akin and damaged the brand nationally. That hasn’t stopped Democrats from trying to make hay out of anything they can.

Kentucky secretary of state Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat challenging Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, has made a Republican spokesman’s description of her as an “empty dress” into a staple of her stump speech. “I am not an empty dress, I am not a rubber stamp, and I am not a cheerleader,” she insisted after winning the Democratic nomination.

Elsewhere on the trail, Grimes has tried to manufacture insults where there are none. For instance, during a joint appearance at a Kentucky Farm Bureau event, McConnell suggested that his opponent hadn’t fully answered a question from the audience. Grimes countered with a head-scratching non sequitur. “You just heard he wants another six [years] to get a self-promotion; you just heard him think that I somehow didn’t directly answer Fritz’s question,” Grimes said. “Senator, I do speak for myself. Women aren’t supposed to just be seen; we will be heard. And I do believe in open, and free, but most importantly fair trade.”

It is not only Democratic candidates making such tendentious suggestions of sexism. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf suggested that Fox News host Bill O’Reilly was “sexist” for saying that her colleague, Jen Psaki, was “way out of her depth.”

On the policy side, even as the “war on women” is a priority, Democrats and their allies have shifted their messaging away from abortion, in a probable sign of the issue’s lack of potency for them. The Washington Post noted last year, when a ban on abortions after 20 weeks was being debated, that “four major polls conducted in recent weeks on the 20-week abortion ban [show] women are actually more supportive of the law than men.” EMILY’s List PAC, an organization dedicated to “electing more pro-choice Democratic women,” is running ads against Republicans in North Carolina and Georgia focused on education spending and equal pay.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) wants to make Republicans vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act before election day, even though one of President Obama’s economists admitted that their suggestion that woman get paid 77 cents for every dollar men make is misleading. “I agree that the 77 cents on the dollar is not all due to discrimination,” White House economist Betsey Stevenson told MSNBC in April, conceding on a later conference call with reporters that the statistic merely reflects “the annual earnings of full-time, full-year women divided by the annual earnings of full-time, full-year men.”

The difficulty of the political environment has driven some Democrats to desperation. Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D., Fla.) leveled an attack against Governor Scott Walker (R., Wis.) that would have been judged demeaning to domestic-violence victims if a Republican had said it. “Scott Walker has given women the back of his hand. . . . That is reality,” she said. “What Republican tea-party extremists like Scott Walker are doing is they are grabbing us by the hair and pulling us back,” she also said.

When they aren’t making such overwrought allegations, Democratic-party operatives struggle to campaign against Republican women without making the very kinds of attacks that they deride as sexist. Representative Bruce Braley (D., Iowa) released an ad juxtaposing Republican opponent Joni Ernst with a baby chick, for instance.

In Oregon, when Obamacare’s disastrous rollout threatened Senator Jeff Merkley’s job security, the state Democratic party started probing Republican candidate Monica Wehby’s personal life. A party staffer obtained a police report showing that an ex-boyfriend of Wehby’s had alleged she was “stalking” him. “Stop calling your boyfriend,” Matt Canter, deputy executive director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee tweeted.

Wehby’s team said the attacks stemmed from Democrats’ difficulty portraying the pediatric neurosurgeon as part of a “war on women” party. “Merkley’s camp, or just Democrats in general, like to rely on these typical talking points that make Republicans to have this war on women, but with Monica specifically they can’t rely on that,” Dean Petrone, a spokesman for Wehby, told NRO. “So, I think what they’ve attempted to do instead is they attack her character.”

The attempt to energize female voters through this sort of identity politics comes as women grow disillusioned with Obama. “The president’s approval has slipped among key parts of the Obama coalition — the women, youth and Latino voters most responsible for putting him into office,” the Washington Post reported Thursday. “Women surveyed said they disapprove of Obama by a 50 percent to 44 percent margin — nearing an all-time low in the poll.”

President Obama’s approval rating is about as bad as George W. Bush’s was at this time in 2006, a year in which Republicans lost six Senate seats. Alison Lundergan Grimes’s habit of assuring voters that she’s a “strong Kentucky woman” who, implicitly, won’t toe the party line in Washington, D.C., brings to mind the quip attributed to former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher: “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”

Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.

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