The GOP's Strange Obsession With the "War on Women"

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
July 26 2013 1:44 PM

The GOP's Strange Obsession With the "War on Women"

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus once compared claims about the GOP's "war on women" to a "war on caterpillars."

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

You can tell that a line's really angered someone if he refuses to let it go. In early 2012 the Obama campaign and Democrats in general started characterizing Republican legislation to limit abortion rights and Republican opposition to birth control coverage as part of a "war on women." The initial Republican response was inadequate. "If the Democrats said we had a war on caterpillars and every mainstream media outlet talked about the fact that Republicans have a war on caterpillars, then we’d have problems with caterpillars," joked RNC Chairman Reince Priebus. Well, over the next six months, Democrats exploited every eruption of social conservative legislation or inarticulate speech (see: Akin, Todd), and won the elections with an 11-point margin among women.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Republicans have given up on dismissing the line and tried to jiujitsu it. In their language, the "war on women" consists of sexual harassment or affairs involving individual women. (By Democrats. Don't mention David Vitter or Scott DesJarlais.) "For over a year now, Democrats have repeatedly used and exploited the term, 'War on Women,' for their own political gain," wrote NRSC spokesman Brad Dayspring in his Tuesday media email. "It’s a campaign based on fear, disinformation, and exploitation – but one that we know the Democrats will use as one of their main messages in 2014. Democrats—those valiant defenders of women. The party of Eliot SpitzerAnthony Weiner. Bob FilnerBob MenendezSheldon SilverJohn EdwardsDavid WuKwame Kilpatrick. The list goes on and on. Democrats invoke the 'War on Women' charge repeatedly, but they head for the hills when asked about their Democratic colleagues’ actual mistreatment of women. "

What to say about the list? Only one person on it is currently a member of Congress—Sen. Bob Menendez. And the linked story about him is a report about the divorced senator having, maybe, a consensual affair with a married woman. If anything that's a "war on one poor guy." Only two people on the list are serving in government—San Diego Mayor Bob Filner and New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. The rest of these people resigned in disgrace, often after prodding from fellow Democrats. It's rather easy for Democrats to respond to some prodding and reject-denounce the cads, as Debbie Wasserman Schultz did to Filner.


More to the point, aren't Republicans talking about randomized political embarrassment, not policy? Yeah, they are, which is why a look at state newspapers reveals that none of them has covered this as a news story. Typically, successful "hits" appear when a party sends out updates. No one's really bitten on this story apart from the RNC itself, placing op-eds, and BuzzFeed, which published a story about how "Democrats aren’t rushing to the defense of Filner, who served with many of them during his almost 20 years in the House, but they have largely avoided talking about him all together." It was similar to stories about how Republicans, in early 2013, didn't want to talk about Mark Sanford, but Sanford was trying (successfully) to return to Congress. Not really the story the NRSC wanted.

Democrats, unsurprisingly, think this is hilarious. "No one has gotten questions and everyone is perfectly fine throwing all the d* bags under the bus," says Matt Canter, the DSCC's spokesman. "This whole things shows that Republicans have no idea what the hell the 'war on women' is all about—the voter. Protecting equal pay, birth control access, VAWA. It is about issues, not cable soap operas in New York City and San Diego."

Maybe that's dismissive, but the Republican line is even more dismissive. One NRSC attack lampooned Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes because her father (the former state party chairman) donated to Anthony Weiner. "When it comes time to defend real women, actual victims of harassment," wrote the NRSC, "Grimes and her father Jerry Lundergan are empowering the same men who are assaulting women. The Lundergan family has given the maximum amount of donations allowed ($4,950) to fully support entrenched scandal-ridden Anthony Weiner."

The implication is that policy affecting a wide swath of women—making birth control more expensive than the status quo, say—isn't affecting "real women." Right? I'm not even sure of what the attack is telling us, apart from how the party committees are more confident attacking sex scandals than in advertising the state GOP bills that Democrats are grouping into the "war on women."

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 


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