Ann Romney Can't Fix Mitt's Women Problem

Her defense of her choice to stay home with her kids was compelling, but Mitt Romney's struggle with women voters isn't over.

Watching Ann Romney somberly defend herself against grave and terrible attacks on her maternal nature Thursday, it was easy to forget that not 24 hours prior, Mitt Romney was losing badly in the political battle for women's votes.

"My career choice was to be a mother," Ann Romney said on Fox News. "And I think all of us need to know that we need to respect choices that women make. Other women make other choices to have a career and raise family, which I think Hilary Rosen has actually done herself. I respect that. It's wonderful."

Rosen, a Democratic strategist, had contended on CNN Wednesday night that Romney had "never actually worked a day in her life" and thus was poorly qualified to understand what most American women go through. Republicans immediately began fainting in horror at this failure to appreciate the hard labor Romney put in as a stay-at-home mom; "I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys," Romney herself tweeted. "Believe me, it was hard work."

The underlying, legitimate, and not-at-all-novel point Rosen was making -- that the wealth of the Romney family has insulated them from many ordinary people's struggles -- was immediately lost in the cacophony of criticism. If there's one thing we can all agree on, it's that motherhood is divine and noble and saintly. (As a mother myself, I would know just what perfect human specimens all moms automatically are.) In a classy, modern touch, Ann Romney, in her Fox interview, also praised "all the dads home raising kids," thereby elevating the discussion, if only momentarily, from the retrograde notion that only women can or should raise children.

As she tends to be, Ann Romney -- whose spouse, Mitt Romney, is running for president -- was sympathetic, serious, and an effective advocate for her husband. "I know what it's like to struggle," she said in response to the charge that she's out of touch. "Maybe I haven't struggled as much financially as some have. But I can tell you, I can promise that I've had struggles in my life."

That she succeeded in refocusing the discussion from a debate about President Obama's record on women's issues to a debate about whether poor, sweet Ann Romney was a good mother to her five lovely sons was obvious from the reaction of Democrats to the episode, which was to distance themselves as far as possible from Rosen -- a mother herself and a longtime Democratic operative and pundit, though one with no affiliation with the Obama administration or campaign.

First Lady Michelle Obama, for example, tweeted, "Every mother works hard, and every woman deserves to be respected." Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said she was "disappointed" by Rosen's remark: "As a mother of 3 there's no doubt that raising children is work." White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, asked at a briefing about logs showing Rosen was a frequent White House visitor, said he couldn't even be certain those were the same person: "I know three, personally, women named Hilary Rosen," he said.

A flurry of furious charges and countercharges naturally broke out, with the Romney camp seeking to press the issue and Democrats trying to derail the runaway train. It was all quite the reversal from the day before, when Mitt Romney's attempt to wade into the "war on women" was going disastrously.

His claim that women have been the disproportionate victims of job loss was widely criticized; his gestures to his wife as his ambassador to the women's vote made him sound like he viewed women as a foreign, distant community. His policy adviser, on a conference call specifically convened to promote the idea that it was Obama who was waging war on women, couldn't say where he stood on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, Obama's landmark legislation on women's pay discrimination. This came in the wake of months of debate about access to contraception, "slutgate," vaginal probing, and so on, all of it thoroughly toxic for Republicans hoping to appeal to women voters. Recent polls have shown Romney losing the women's vote by nearly 20 points, but in trying to turn that around, he seemed to be wading into a type of identity politics he was ill-equipped to manage, and fumbling as a result.

The policy argument for the women's vote, in other words, is a tough one for the GOP. But in managing to turn the debate instead to one about which party values and defends the traditional family, Romney was back on more comfortable turf. The problem is that now that everyone has rushed to agree that Hilary Rosen misspoke -- Rosen herself, after trying to defend what she meant to say, finally apologized for her "poorly chosen" words Thursday afternoon -- eventually, Mitt Romney is going to have to go back to figuring out how to talk about contraception, equal pay, and other not-so-easy topics.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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