Are Democrats in Danger of Looking Too Political on the Violence Against Women Act?

What Women Really Think
March 16 2012 8:45 AM

Are Democrats in Danger of Looking Too Political on the Violence Against Women Act?

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Sen. Diane Feinstein said that the Republican resistance to reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act came as a "real surprise."

Photo by KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

In the “War on Women” that’s been raging these past few months, it's clear that the Democrats have succeeded in framing the debate in their favor. The GOP—especially in the recent Obama contraception mandate controversy—has been painted as the anti-woman party, and even Republican insiders fear that the misstep could cost them dearly in an election year in which women will represent a significant portion of the voting public.

J. Bryan Lowder J. Bryan Lowder

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

So it’s no surprise that Congressional Republicans were unhappy to learn yesterday that the Democrats, led by the party’s female Senators, have lobbed another lady-themed political bomb their way in the form of pressure to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. The legislation, which originally passed in 1994, is responsible for funding domestic violence prevention and prosecution programs around the country, and its renewal has traditionally been a popular bipartisan action. This time, however, Republicans on the Judiciary Committee have balked at addendums to the bill that would provide temporary visas for battered illegal immigrants and coverage for same-sex couples.

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According to the New York Times’ piece on the issue, Democrats were shocked—shocked!—by their colleagues’ intransigence:

Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, one of two women on the judiciary panel, said the partisan opposition came as a “real surprise,” but she put it into a broader picture.

“This is part of a larger effort, candidly, to cut back on rights and services to women,” she said. “We’ve seen it go from discussions on Roe v. Wade, to partial birth abortion, to contraception, to preventive services for women. This seems to be one more thing.”

Republicans are obviously aware that their enemies will try to portray their resistance in the terms that Feinstein describes, and I suspect they will try to work out a reasonable comprise on VAWA before too much damage is done. But what about the Democrats?

At the end of the Times piece, Senator Roy Blunt suggests that the new champions of women may be “in serious danger of overplaying their hand,” and I actually think he has a point. While I certainly praise the support that Democrats have displayed for women’s issues in this election cycle, I’m starting to be turned off by the giddiness with which they’ve taken on the mantle of lady defender. I admit that the issue of political tone is small potatoes compared to the very important programs and services at stake in these debates, but I’m still a little uncomfortable with the unequivocal friend-or-foe rhetoric that has come to dominate this conversation. Sure, I’m personally all for the inclusion of immigrants under the statute, but you have to admit that the Republican desire to be cautious about the larger implications of such allowances is not the same as just “one more” wholesale attack on women. It’s simply dishonest to pretend that there aren’t other issues involved in that kind of change, whether you agree with the opposition or not.

And of course, Republicans are right to sense political maneuvering in the timing of this push. Democrats know they have a good thing going with women right now, and they’re undoubtedly looking to score another blow while their opponent is laid low. For the sake of victims of domestic violence, VAWA should be reauthorized as soon as possible, but Democrats need to remember that we all know they’re in the midst of a tough election contest, too. Fight the good fight for women, but please, leave the noble posturing at home.