The “War on Women” Is Over
The life cycle of a political talking point, from birth to adolescence to death.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz helped midwife "War on Women" as a talking point
Courtesy Debbie Wasserman Schultz's congressional website.
A moment of silence, please, for a talking point that was taken too soon. The “war on women” began its life in a February 2011 House speech about abortion. After a short life as a Democratic hobby horse, it died during the second week of April 2012. The cause of death: Rosengate, the latest and least explicable battle in the Umbrage Wars.
On Wednesday, in her capacity as a CNN political analyst, Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen laughed at Mitt Romney’s claim that he stayed in touch with the economy through his wife, Ann. “His wife has never actually worked a day in her life,” said Rosen.
Over the next 24 hours, the Romney campaign managed to make Democrats—including First Lady Michelle Obama—stop what they were doing and denounce Rosen, who does not work for the Obama-Biden campaign or the Democratic National Committee. “The issues of stay-at-home moms and women being hurt by the economy are not good turf for [the Democrats],” explained RNC deputy communications director Tim Miller. “Their ‘war on women,’ which was milked for weeks, is definitely no longer. They have the woman problem right now.”
Even a dead talking point can teach us something. The “war on women” was a fitfully successful frame for Democrats to describe anti-abortion bills, then anti-equal-pay legislation.
Birth: The war on women line was born during the debate over the long-forgotten No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act. The midwife was a man: Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York. “This legislation,” he said on Feb. 9, 2011, “represents an entirely new front in the war on women and their families.”
The bill—one of many that would pass John Boehner’s House and run aground in the Senate—was a mess. It would have prevented the use of any tax benefits to pay for abortions, and in its original version provided an out only in cases of “forcible rape.” Democrats, bruised and humbled by their landslide 2010 losses, started raising money with war-drum emails about the threat to choice. The newborn talking point rolled off the tongue and straight into press releases: The Center for American Progress described the bill as “the Right’s War on Women.” Planned Parenthood protested the doomed bill with pre-printed “War on Women” signs.
Awkward childhood: Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, one of her party’s rising stars, started using the war on women line in March 2011. Nobody noticed. When she became the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee in May 2011, people started noticing. She noshed at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast on May 26, after the House had voted to ban any taxpayer money from going to Planned Parenthood. “The war on women that the Republicans have been waging since they took over the House,” she said, “I think is going to not only restore but possibly helps us exceed the president's margin of victory in the next election.”
Republicans were miffed. “Apparently it's open season on Republican women,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the highest-ranking woman in Republican leadership. When a talking point is criticized, it becomes controversial. In June, Politico published a story about the “rocky start” of the new DNC chair, noting that “she’s accused Republicans of wanting to reinstate segregation and of waging a ‘war on women.’ ” This had drawn the ire of “some Democrats,” “one Democratic consultant,” and no Democrats with identifiable surnames.
Respectable adulthood. Talking points generally have the life expectancy of a frontier family on the Oregon Trail with no medicine. But if it doesn’t die, it thrives. Wasserman Schultz kept on saying “war on women,” and Republicans kept on giving her reasons to. The best was the “personhood amendment,” a constitutional addendum, rejected by Mississippi voters in November 2011, that would have defined life as starting at conception. This, said Wasserman Schultz on MSNBC, was especially offensive “for me as a woman who gave birth to two of my children through in vitro fertilization.”
For every Republican outrage, there was a three-word talking point in pocket, ready to drive the GOP up the wall. Between January 1 and April 12, the New York Times published 24 references to the “war on women” and the Washington Post published 26 such references. Most of the war talk came when Democrats, Wasserman Schultz included, used Rush Limbaugh’s feud with Sandra Fluke to warn about Republicans limiting birth control. The war on women was obvious, said Wasserman Schultz in an interview around the time of the Fluke contretemps, “whether it was the Blunt-Rubio amendment, personhood, or attempts to repeal Roe vs. Wade.”
The prefab talking point was an enormous help. Why? Limbaugh only noticed Fluke in the first place because she’d testified on the “contraception mandate” recently enacted by the Department of Health and Human Services. That issue was supposed to rally Americans of Faith against the Obama administration. Democrats eventually turned it into the Midway of the War on Women.
Old age. A talking point either fades or it devours itself. The “war on women” started swallowing its tail on April 5, when Al Hunt asked RNC Chairman Reince Priebus if this whole “war” thing was legit. “If the Democrats said we had a war on caterpillars,” he said, “and every mainstream media outlet talked about the fact that Republicans have a war on caterpillars, then we have problems with caterpillars.” Anyway, Priebus explained, it was all a distraction from Obama’s “war against the Vatican.”
Republicans were through with this. The “war on women” would be mocked to death. On Twitter, the hashtag #waronwomen was co-opted, becoming a one-stop joke shop. The Washington Free Beacon, a new-ish site of anti-Democrat “combat journalism,” started running stories about President Obama’s “boys club.” And Mitt Romney’s campaign put together a fightback. “They will try to debunk the notion that Romney's policies have hurt women,” reported the New York Times’ Trip Gabriel and Ashley Parker, “turn the criticism back on Obama and outline how they believe women have suffered under his administration, and brand those issues in a memorable way.”
The strategy was rolled out at a campaign stop in Wilmington, Del., this week. Standing in front of a crowd of XX-chromosomed Americans, a blue-blazered Mitt Romney declared that “the real war on women” was “job losses in the Obama years.” Democrats had gone after anti-contraception bills? Fine. Romney would go after unemployment. On Thursday, the Republican National Committee issued a nine-page memo on Obama’s war against women, citing such evidence as “an unnamed high-ranking female official” who believed “Obama ‘has a real woman problem.’ ”
Death. As Romney and the RNC fought back, Democrats started to choke. In her fateful CNN appearance, right before she evaluated Ann Romney’s economics cred, Hilary Rosen begged the media to “just get rid of this word, ‘war on women.’ ” After all, “the Obama campaign does not use it, President Obama does not use it—this is something that the Republicans are accusing people of using.”
On Thursday, as the Rosen saga unfolded, DNC communications director Brad Woodhouse echoed her plea for peace. “I'm not a fan of the term,” he said in an interview. “I mean, I’m sure I’ve probably used it. We all fall into these easy vernaculars … but we in the DNC have not been running a campaign based on the term ‘war on Women.’ That's a myth cooked up by Republicans.”
Ding-dong, the talking point is dead. But don’t fret too much for the Democrats. They’ll find another zinger.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.