By Columnist Susan Estrich
How do you run against a woman candidate?
It’s a question I’ve been asked since 1984, when I worked for Geraldine Ferraro.
In those days, it wasn’t uncommon to see men who were running against women making subtle (and not so subtle) appeals to toughness, using national security and crime issues as a way to raise questions about whether their female opponents had what it takes.
Maybe that’s why my favorite ad from 2008 was Hillary Clinton’s red phone ad. Twenty years ago, that was precisely the kind of ad you’d run against a woman. In the 21st century, it was a very strong and tough woman who ran the ad. Times have changed – at least on the Democratic side.
Not so, it appears, for Republicans, who are getting special “training” so as to be “sensitive” when running against women or seeking their votes.
House Speaker John Boehner, responding to reports that the Republican Party is now giving “sensitivity training” to male candidates, explained this week that Republican men in Congress “aren’t as sensitive as they ought to be” when running against women.
“We’re trying to get them to be a little more sensitive,” Boehner told reporters. “You look around the Congress, there are a lot more females in the Democratic caucus than there are in the Republican caucus. And some of our members just aren’t as sensitive as they ought to be.”
This is how “not” to run against women, and how “not” to win the votes of women. Do what Boehner is doing. Insult them by suggesting that it isn’t policy that matters, but sensitivity.
This is why the Republican Party runs the risk of becoming a party of angry white males at a time when there aren’t enough angry white males to win a majority.
The way to run against women is the same way that you run against men: by focusing on qualifications, experience and policy.
Imagine holding sensitivity training sessions to teach candidates how to run against men. It’s laughable – or worse, insulting. Why should women be different?
What got Republicans into trouble in the 2012 elections was not insensitivity, but stupidity. The two most notorious examples were Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri, done in by comments about “legitimate rape,” and Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who said that “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, it is something that God intended to happen.” Akin lost to a woman; Mourdock, to a man. In both cases, their problems went far beyond sensitivity.
The same is true in addressing women voters. The fact that women are somewhat more likely to support Democrats than Republicans has absolutely nothing to do with sensitivity and everything to do with policy. The gender gap is grounded in issues: the economy (where women tend to earn less), education (where women tend to care more and are more likely to be the primary or sole parent) and health care (ditto). Sure, there are many women who are pro-gun and anti-choice, but there are even more who support reasonable restrictions on gun sales and who believe that they – not the government – should decide whether and when to have children.
“A little bit more sensitive”? Americans, men and women, are disgusted with Boehner’s Congress for reasons having absolutely nothing to do with sensitivity and everything to do with his failure, and that of his members, to act like grownups, to put people’s needs ahead of partisan gamesmanship, to address problems rather than just rant and rave. Shutting down the government in protest over Obamacare – after we had an election in which Obamacare was front and center and the Republicans lost – isn’t an issue for sensitivity training. You don’t win votes by patronizing voters, and you don’t run against women candidates by focusing on their gender rather than their positions.
How dumb does Boehner think women are?