The GOP's Totally Reactive Reaction to the War on Women

Here's why it would be better politics for Republicans to come up with their own framework.
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Five different Republican committees this morning released a joint memo pushing back on the "Democrats' War on Women" messaging to highlight the sex scandals of a group of Democratic men and argue that Democrats are hypocrites who only care about women when it is politically convenient.

It's a fine message as far as it goes, which is as a kind of a summer doldrums GOP base-riling play, reminding Republican women that there are a bunch of Democratic men out there who they -- and others! -- think are creeps. But the memo did not lay out a message the GOP can build a 2014 campaign around, because it's not a real prescription to reach women, and it doesn't involve anyone who's even going to be on a ballot that fall.

Anthony Weiner isn't going to be mayor of New York and will return to being a political non-entity by mid-fall at the latest. San Diego Mayor Bob Filner was just recently elected, but does not seem long for his post, as Democratic and Republican efforts in San Diego have picked up to force him from office. (The man can't even be alone in a room with a woman any more, according to city lawyers -- how can he govern?) And as much as people might be creeped out by Eliot Spitzer, comptroller of the City of New York is a position that's a mystery even to many New Yorkers and has almost no national profile (though Spitzer surely hopes to change that). As for the fourth man in the GOP memo, Bill Clinton, it's hard to see what resonance his 1990s actions have for anyone who's not already a hard-core Clinton hater. The Clinton scandals were litigated in the '90s, and didn't work for the GOP electorally even in 1998, when Democrats won House seats against the backdrop of a news cycle that shoved Clinton's encounters and talk of blow jobs into every home in America.

If the GOP wants to reach women and fight back against Democrats on this front, it is going to need its own pro-active framework for thinking about what is happening in America and why women have been drawn to Democrats in numbers that matter in key elections. Adopting the Democratic "War on Women" messaging and trying to flip it won't work, because that was an argument about Republican policies on women -- women as a group -- rather than about reprehensible individual behavior. That's why people like Rep. Todd Akin were a focus, not Rep. Scott DesJarlais (who, despite public opposition to abortion, pressured a mistress to have one.)

What the GOP seems to be grasping toward here is something like the 2006 Democratic message on the "culture of corruption," a forward-looking, slow-boil messaging strategy on congressional lobbying scandals that became the perfect set-up to absorb the Mark Foley sex scandal, which erupted late in the mid-term election cycle when it was revealed that the then-congressman had been sending sexually suggestive emails to teenage male congressional pages. 

Yet in going for one-to-one messaging equivalence on women's issues, the Republican committees are taking an entirely reactive approach -- trying to flip something irritating that works for Democrats -- instead of learning from the Republican Party's own past successes.

What's made a big difference for Republicans when it comes to attracting women voters is security messaging. George W. Bush did unusually well (for a Republican presidential candidate) with women voters in 2004 because women wanted someone they thought would keep them safe in the wake of the September 11 attacks. His "Ashley's Story" ad was a powerhouse.

There remain a great number of unresolved security issues for the contemporary woman. If Republicans want to fight back against the Democratic "War on Women" messaging, which is not even much in use since the end of the election (since, you know, it had an electoral aim, not just a stick-a-finger-in-their-eye one), they could try to identify the security- and crime-related areas where they can accomplish real policy changes on behalf of women. They'd get bonus points for leadership and bipartisanship, and for breaking congressional gridlock (Dems will have to follow them, if the ideas are right). And they should tout areas where they have done important work for women, like the SAFER Act to address the rape-kit backlog, sponsored by Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn and signed into law by President Obama in March. Instead of saying something stupid about rape, Cornyn worked in a bipartisan fashion with Sen. Michael Bennet and others to do something to help women who have been victims of it, through a law backed by the Fraternal Order of Police, the National Organization for Women, and the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. But who knows about this?

Abortion legislation is futile territory given the House-Senate split right now -- nothing but base plays around bills that won't become law. But the universe of issues of importance to women is bigger than abortion, and given that the GOP holds the House, it has the power to set an affirmative agenda that could be beneficial to all women -- not just base voters -- on issues from rape to cyberstalking. A security-centric approach to reaching women voters would play to the GOP's strengths -- the anti-crime party -- and it would actually do something new and useful on a policy basis for women.

The GOP memo follows, below:

MEMORANDUM FROM:

Andrea Bozek, NRCC Communications Director

Gail Gitcho, RGA Communications Director

Jill Bader, RSLC Communications Director

Sean Spicer, RNC Communications Director

Brad Dayspring, NRSC Communications Director

TO: Republicans Across the Country

RE: Democrats' War on Women

Democrats want voters to think they'll do anything to defend women. But when women in San Diego were allegedly harassed, marginalized and exploited by a Democrat mayor, most Democrats said nothing.

When a Democrat candidate for mayor in the nation's largest city was caught -- not for the first time -- acting like an internet predator and sending nude pictures to young women after repeatedly lying to his constituents, most Democrats said nothing.

Democrats' hypocrisy is appalling. And with their silence, they are sanctioning the actions of Bob Filner and Anthony Weiner and numerous others who have assaulted, harassed, and preyed on women.

That's not mentioning the Weiner campaign official, who went on a tirade against a female intern while she was talking to a reporter (thinking it was off the record), attempting to shame and humiliate the intern by verbally attacking her as a "slutbag" among a long list of other offensive, sexist, and demeaning terms. This is how Democrats really talk about women when they think no one will find out.

It's not just Weiner staffers. This week, a male senior official at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee actually compared sexual harassment and assault to "cable soap operas" in an interview with Yahoo News.

Where's the outrage? Why aren't leading Democrats like President Obama, Vice President Biden, and former Secretary Clinton, standing up for these women?

Last year, when radio host Rush Limbaugh called liberal activist Sandra Fluke an offensive term, Nancy Pelosi demanded that Republicans speak out. But when an individual currently serving on an actual Democrat campaign used precisely the same term and many more to disparage an intern, Pelosi didn't say a word. Nor did she speak out when two former members of her caucus, members who voted for her as speaker, were discovered to be harassing and exposing themselves to women.

You'll also recall t hat last year, when a Republican candidate made a ridiculous and offensive remark, he was swiftly condemned by the party's presidential nominee, the RNC chairman, and congressional leaders. In contrast, when a Democrat official is accused of physically attacking women, Democrat leaders looked the other way.

Two full weeks passed before DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz could even be bothered to call for Mayor Filner's resignation. Not until seven women came forward alleging verbal or physical harassment did she come to the defense of women in San Diego. What took so long? Did she not think six harassed women was a concern?

When Nancy Pelosi was asked about her former colleague Mayor Filner, she didn't jump to the defense of the women involved. Instead, she was indignant that she was asked. "Don't identify him as my former colleague," she snapped. She's yet to call for her fellow Californian's resignation.

In New York, Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand have ducked and dodged questions about Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer and have not called on either to leave the race. Another New Yorker, Hillary Clinton, has stayed mum about all of it. For someone who has not-so-veiled aspirations to lead her party, she's failed to show any leadership in publicly denouncing Weiner's habits or his candidacy.

Speaking of Clintons, Democrats running in 2014 are counting on Bill Clinton to be a top surrogate and fundraiser. So while they're claiming to defend women, they're celebrating with a man who's record with women is notorious.

Does this sound like a party that cares about women? Or does this sound like a party who wants to cover up scandals at any cost, even if that means ignoring the very real harm done by members of their party?

Could it be that Democrats only pretend to care about women when it's politically advantageous?

With congressional Democrats back in their districts this month, it's time for voters to hold them accountable. Likewise, it's time to pressure the likes of Biden and Clinton into stating their positions. Where do they stand? Until now, it certainly hasn't been with women.

Let's be clear: Democrats made up and launched the contrived "war on women," and the media happily went along with it. Clearly they didn't think through their "war" strategy. It's now backfired and exposed them as the hypocrites that they are. And since you won't hear about that in the mainstream media, it's up to all of us to get the truth out.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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