Friday Talking Points -- "Mommy Wars" Versus "War on Women"

Is Ann Romney a valid target for political commentary? President Obama and his First Lady unequivocally said "No," but then you'd expect them to. As far as they're concerned, spouses and children of politicians areoff-limits. But are they? Or should they be?
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First, a happy Friday the Thirteenth to everyone.

The biggest political news this week was that Rick Santorum quit his increasingly-desperate attempt to win the Republican presidential nomination, and will soon (through clenched teeth, no doubt) be endorsing Mitt Romney as his party's standard-bearer, in the hopes of becoming the "Next Guy In Line" in 2016. Republicans almost always nominate the NGIL, so it's understandable that Rick quit before he faced the embarrassment of Pennsylvania voters rejecting him once again. Go out on a high note, instead of in disgrace -- a good tactic in politics.

Republican Allen West appears to be channeling the spirit of Joe McCarthy, stating that over 75 Democrats in the House are card-carrying "members of the Communist Party." Boy, that really takes you back, doesn't it? Nothing like some good, old-fashioned Red-baiting to get the juices flowing on the Right, eh? The problem is, these days, we're buddies with Red China (our economy would collapse without them, so who really did win the Cold War, one wonders...), we trade with the folks who beat us in Vietnam, and (other than Cuba) we have no problem with cozying up to Godless Commies around the globe. It's not exactly Dr. Strangelove times, in other words. West's comments got a hearty laugh all around (even from the Communist Party USA itself), and were quickly forgotten in a haze of Joe McCarthy and House Un-American Activities Committee jokes.

The big political distraction at the end of the week was a reopening of what used to be called the "Mommy Wars," by Democratic insider Hilary Rosen. This came about largely because the political chattering class was bored, now that their GOP nomination horserace is all-but-officially over, and they needed a new toy to blow up with metaphorical firecrackers. Of course, they leapt at the chance to do so with all the fervor of a nine-year-old with a pocketful of Black Cats and his sister's Barbie doll, heading into the woods for some pyromaniacal fun.

Now, this tempest in a teapot has many facets, most of which have been explored in great detail by others. I, for instance, am going to refrain from commenting on the Mommy War aspect itself, since I am not now (nor, in true HUAAC fashion, have I ever been) a Mommy. The entire question of staying at home to raise children versus having a career is one that I am not competent to weigh in on (if you're looking for this core discussion, please see: the entire rest of the blogosphere). But, having said that, as much as we'd love to ignore the entire subject, we're going to use it as a case study in today's Talking Points section, as an example of how a talking point can go horribly wrong.

Both President Obama and Vice President Biden have been doing a great job in the past few days of giving rousing speeches on their economic agenda, even if not many people are paying attention at the time. Being incumbents this time around, Mitt Romney will have one advantage over the White House team, and that is he's been honing his campaign skills for a very brutal primary season which has taken up most of the last year. Obama, on the other hand, hasn't had a primary challenger to fend off, so it is good to see that he's also getting some practice rounds in on the stump. The "Buffett Rule" is not going to pass the Senate next week, but it will be a major issue in the campaign, so these early speeches may held the Obama team sharpen their message.

Hillary Clinton was impressive last week, and showed all other politicians (of either sex or party) how this whole "charisma" thing is done. These two guys started a spoof site about Hillary, it took off online, and so Clinton's staff just called the two guys up and invited them to meet her in person. Hillary even played around with putting out a real/fake message in the site's style.

Now that is class. That is also incredible political savviness. For such, Clinton is awarded an Honorable Mention this week.

In fact, in a normal week, this probably would have been enough for Hillary to pick up the coveted Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award. But this was an extraordinary week for a few Democratic politicians.

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin was chased by four bears around his own backyard, and emerged unscathed (Shumlin was reportedly attempting to defend his bird feeders). That's either pretty impressive or pretty reckless, depending on how the average person would see it. Or depending on the "av-er-age bear," to quote Yogi.

OK, we just couldn't resist that one, and we apologize to all concerned, especially all bears. Ahem. We'll just hand Shumlin his own Honorable Mention and move along.

But this week's real MIDOTW winner is none other than the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, who heroically ran into a burning building and saved a woman's life. That is not a misprint or any sort of joke -- Cory Booker ran into the flames and hauled a woman out of a building who likely would not have made it out on her own.

There are only two things worth saying about this story, because the story simply speaks for itself. The first is to point out once again, as I have always maintained, that true heroes never call themselves such, and deny being such afterwards. Instead, he said "I did what any neighbor would do -- help a neighbor." One of the hallmarks of being a hero is always to deny it.

The second thing worth pointing out is the truly defining point of heroism, though. Booker selflessly ran towards danger to save another. That is heroism, plain and simple. He pushed aside a security detail "who tried to hold him back by his belt." Heroes don't stand around wondering what to do, or why anyone else isn't doing something. Heroes act.

Cory Booker is, without any dissention, the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week. And a hero, to boot.

(Congratulate Mayor Cory Booker on his official Newark contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.)

This one is pretty easy, this week. Democratic operative Hilary Rosen is, quite obviously, our Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week.

The entire Talking Points section contains our full explanation of why we feel this way. It boils down to a simple fact: Rosen is supposed to be a professional at political/media communications. She's supposed to be an expert at this stuff. She gets paid money to do this for a living. She's not even some hapless politicians caught on a live microphone in an embarassing gaffe -- she's supposed to be the one training politicians not to make on-air gaffes.

In other words, she has no one to blame for choosing the wrong phrase to make a larger point but herself. For that alone -- not even for what she said -- Hilary Rosen is our Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award-winner.

(Contact Hilary Rosen via her company's contact page, to let them know what you think of her actions.)

Volume 206 (4/13/12)

Once again, we find ourselves distracted here from larger political issues. I wrote, earlier in the week, a column which went on offense rather than defense, on how Democrats from Obama on down should start using the phrase "Reagan Rule" instead of "Buffett Rule," but it was immediately lost in the uproar. So if you're looking for a more talking-point-ey column, I'd advise reading that one instead. Because we're going to play defense here, today.

The remarks which put Democrats on the defensive were uttered by Hilary Rosen, on Anderson Cooper's political show on CNN. Here is the entire quote, when asked about why the Romney camp shouldn't be reaching out to women on economic issues:

Well, first, can we just get rid of this word war on women. The Obama campaign does not use it. President Obama does not use it. This is something that the Republicans are accusing people of using, but they're actually the one spreading it.

With respect to economic issues, I think actually that Mitt Romney is right, that ultimately women care more about the economic well-being of their families and the like. But there's -- but he doesn't connect on that issue either.

What you have is Mitt Romney running around the country saying, well, you know, my wife tells me that what women really care about are economic issues. And when I listen to my wife, that's what I'm hearing.

Guess what, his wife has actually never worked a day in her life. She's never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing in terms of how do we feed our kids, how do we send them to school and how do we -- why do we worry about their future?

So I think it's -- yes, it's about these positions and, yes, I think there will be a war of words about the positions, but there's something much more fundamental about Mitt Romney. He seems so old- fashioned when it comes to women.

And I think that comes across and I think that that's going to hurt him over the long term. He just doesn't really see us as equal.

This was immediately truncated to the soundbite: "[Mitt Romney's] wife has actually never worked a day in her life." Her larger point was completely lost, at least to the chattering class in Washington, to focus solely on Rosen's "attack" on Ann Romney.

But, as I said, we're going to leave most of that sort of thing to others to discuss -- where on the sliding scale of "Momminess" this sort of opinion should be pegged.

Instead, I would like to go off on three separate tangents: the politics of Rosen's comment, the victimhood "card" and whether Ann Romney is politically "fair game" or not.

The politics were disastrous for the Democrats. The White House team, and Obama himself, quickly disavowed any support for Rosen's comments. Snarkmeister Jason Linkins wrote the funniest line of the week on Huffington Post, summing up this quick damage-control:

Washington, D.C.-area commuters are advised that all buses have been re-routed today to drive over Hilary Rosen, by order of the Democratic National Committee, so expect service delays.

Heh. But even with all the loud disavowals, Democrats may have been hurt politically by this kerfluffle. Up until this point, the "War on Women" charge was resonating very effectively throughout the electorate. The only counter to it that Mitt Romney had managed to come up with were some very misleading statistics which weren't exactly doing him much good. Now, however, Mitt can stand up for Moms across America, and champion the conservative feminist backlash position of "stay-at-home Moms." It was like a gift from Heaven for Romney, and you can bet he will exploit it for all its worth.

The most interesting thing to watch in the debate was the speed of both election teams in jumping all over the issue. Ann Romney was on Fox News so fast it made your head spin. Barack Obama himself weighed in on the issue before the news cycle was half over. In other words, both campaigns are already well in gear for the general election. This sort of dueling-statements thing will happen on many other distracting non-stories over the course of the campaign, and both sides can feel good about the fact that nobody on either side seems to be letting the grass grow under their feet -- both candidates' teams seem fully up to speed.

The ironic thing for Democrats is that Republicans have, by now, perfected a tactic which used to be the sole purview of Democrats: playing the "victim" card. The politics of victimhood goes back (on the Democratic side) to the 1970s and 1980s (some might even argue the 1960s), and it used to confound Republicans no end, because they just didn't have any sort of effective response that didn't somehow come off coldhearted and mean. Long about the 1990s or 2000s, Republicans finally figured out how to turn the victimhood charge back on Democrats and manufacture their own faux outrage. Here's a quick example: "Democrats are unfairly playing the 'race card,' why are they discriminating against me in such a racist fashion?"

So now we find ourselves in the showdown: "Mommy Wars" versus the "War on Women." Which phrase will resonate more politically is anyone's guess at this point. I'm betting on the War on Women, since it has more factual legislative ideology (concrete laws Republicans are attempting to pass) behind the slogan (such as the war on Planned Parenthood, just to name one). The Mommy Wars springboarded off a comment by one Democrat who isn't part of any campaign, and who was repudiated by most other Democrats immediately, which doesn't seem like it'd have any staying power, but in today's political world, who really knows?

Now, a word here about the predicament Hilary Rosen finds herself in. While it's hard not to sympathize with anyone who is caught up in the "Gotcha!" game the media plays of ignoring your main point in favor of obsessing over one phrase you used, at the same time it is also hard to extend such sympathy to such a political/media insider. Rosen makes money advising politicians on communications skills -- in her own online bio, she calls herself: "A nationally recognized strategist who skillfully navigates the intersection of communications, media and politics in Washington DC." CNN lists her as a "CNN Contributor," which I assume means she also makes money by being an on-air Democratic strategist. To put it another way, she's supposed to be a professional at opinionating on national television. The problem with this job is that you have to also be interesting and entertaining at political commentary, or else you don't get asked back very often. Which can lead to saying things you might regret later, when removed from any context.

I'm certainly no on-air expert myself. If I regularly appeared on television spouting political opinions, there is a near-certain chance that eventually I would say something really stupid which would come back to haunt me. I can state this certainty would likely approach 100 percent, the more I was on television. I'm a writer, and used to going back and editing (most) stupid things out of what I write. Unedited -- and most likely in search of a cheap laugh -- I would doubtlessly screw up sooner or later. So it's hard for me to moralize too much about others' lapses, knowing this sort of thing.

Rosen did have a good point to make, and when you edit out the one line everyone's focusing on, she did a reasonably good job of making that point: being married to Mitt Romney and raising five children is a lot different than many women's experiences. It was another way to paint the Romneys as horrendously out of touch with the average middle-class American. But the point was lost in the fracas (even though Rosen did try to steer the conversation back to it, right before she offered up an apology for her original gaffe), and now it'll be hard to make any sort of similar point in the future -- at least about Ann Romney -- because the Rosen quote will always be brought up by the other side.

Which brings me to my final point: is Ann Romney a valid target for political commentary? President Obama and his First Lady unequivocally said "No," but then you'd expect them to. As far as they're concerned, spouses and children of politicians are always off-limits.

But are they? Or should they be?

My own feeling is that wives, husbands, children and other extended family members make this choice themselves. Family members are campaign props -- this is just a fact of American political life. Family members are going to appear on stage with their candidate. But even this doesn't make them "fair game," politically. To put it another way: Sarah Palin was right to complain about attacks on her children and husband, even though she dragged them on stage as often as she could manage. Todd Palin, or even Bristol, never became political spokesfolks until after the 2008 election, at least that I recall. Making them off-limits, politically, right up to that point.

But after the election, Bristol Palin astonishingly started taking money to be a spokesperson for abstinence, because there was some group out there willing to pay her to be a "bad example," and she was willing to tell her story and make lots of money doing so. This immediately made her a valid political target on the entire sex/sexual hypocrisy issue.

Amy Carter, likewise, became fair game to go after when she started getting herself arrested to protest apartheid.

This isn't a perfect yardstick. There are grey areas, I should mention. Right now, Mitt Romney's sons fall into this grey area, and so I have to give them the benefit of the doubt and declare them off-limits. Mitt's sons have indeed acted as official campaign spokespeople (such as traveling to U.S. island territories in an effort to whip up primary votes), but mostly off the national stage, as surrogates for Mitt. To me, this walks up to the line of being a "public political figure" in your own right, but doesn't actually cross it.

Ann Romney, however, I would call "fair game." At least for the past month or so. Up until this point, she was not a valid political target, however, as she had limited herself to mostly appearing on stage in front of crowds, and occasionally introducing her husband in the adoring language that only a spouse can truly get away with. Again, to me, this walks up to the line, but doesn't actually cross it into "fair game" territory.

But once Mitt realized he had two big problems, Ann began taking on a bigger role. Mitt's problem is he is not so good at the whole "human being" thing (which most political people call "charisma"). He's not the guy most voters would pick to "have a beer with," to put it another way. Then, a few weeks ago, the Republican anti-women's-rights campaign became a major issue and -- coincidentally -- his poll numbers among women voters went over a cliff. So Mitt had a problem connecting to average voters, and an even bigger problem connecting to women voters.

This is where the Romney campaign sought to re-define Ann. She became Mitt's go-to "consultant" on women's matters, and she started giving her own speeches. Putting Ann in the spotlight, the campaign figured, would "humanize" Mitt.

But what it also did was make it entirely fair and reasonable for Mitt's opponents to bring Ann into the political conversation. She is now (or was, three days ago) "fair game."

To the Democrats' dismay, however, the first person to take on Ann's new persona happened to be Hilary Rosen. And her effort backfired in an enormous way. The Right began howling that Rosen was attacking "stay-at-home-Moms" and conservatives' beliefs that choosing motherhood over a career is a valid (indeed, "the correct," to listen to them) lifestyle choice for any American woman to make. Rosen's point about how Ann Romney had the luxury of making this choice, knowing that her family would not suffer financially as a result, was entirely lost.

What else is likely lost is the chance to ever contradict Ann Romney in any way for the entire rest of the campaign. Barack Obama immediately jumped into the fray (which was the right thing to do -- get your response out as fast as possible) and declared Ann Romney and the Romney boys off-limits for Democrats. Period.

This will free the Romney campaign up to deploy Ann in whatever fashion they choose, full in the knowledge that she will be completely immune to any official contradiction from the Obama campaign whatsoever. That is a very large price to pay, when the general election campaign is less than a week old.

I think Ann Romney isn't going to get all that much traction out of keeping the pressure up on the "Mommy War" front. I think that women who see things through this lens are already likely going to be voting for Mitt this year. Independents will either ignore the whole fray, listen to what both sides are actually saying, or seriously compare the life Ann Romney has led with their own (and draw their own conclusions). So I really don't think this is all that big a weapon in the larger "War on Women" theme which is going to run throughout this entire campaign. I could be wrong about all of that, but that's how I feel at the moment.

The Obamas decided to take the moral high road and declare wives and children off-limits. This may pay off for them later, because they will be able to call on Mitt Romney to denounce any attacks leveled at Michelle Obama. First Ladies can indeed be political targets, but usually this is restricted to their chosen issues -- and Michelle trying to keep kids healthy and fighting hard for military veterans doesn't really present many opportunities. But Barack can cut off any such talk before it has a chance to spread, thanks to his reaction to this controversy.

But what this means is that both Michelle Obama and Ann Romney may enjoy a certain immunity for the rest of this election cycle. Whether this was worth it or not remains to be seen.

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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