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opinion | scot lehigh

Court women voters with facts, policy

THE GOP is making a classic male mistake. As they try to repair their party’s rocky relationship with women, Republicans are launching a charm offensive rather than addressing the issues responsible for the tensions.

Having previously suggested that radical feminists have undermined the traditional family by convincing women they should have careers, Rick Santorum, who suspended his campaign yesterday, had taken to praising the strength, accomplishments, and independence of his grandmother, wife, and daughter. In an(other) awkward but well-meaning comment, Mitt Romney recently portrayed his wife, Ann, indubitably his better half when it comes to campaign-trail charisma, as his emissary to female voters.

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“My wife has the occasion, as you know, to campaign on her own,’’ said Romney. “And she reports to me regularly that the issue women care about most is the economy and getting good jobs for their kids, and for themselves.’’ (Memo to Mitt: I’m not sure women necessarily think of themselves as members of an exotic group requiring an issues liaison.) Senator Scott Brown, meanwhile, is highlighting his close relationship with his wife and two daughters. Yes, he wandered a little off-message about what he’s learned from them: “To cook.’’ That said, the genial senator obviously has a close, comfortable, teasing camaraderie with his all-female family. Anyone who knows the Romneys, meanwhile, knows theirs is a genuine partnership. Nor is there any reason to doubt Santorum’s avowed devotion to his wife.

But those relationships are mostly beside the point. Women voters aren’t going to be swayed simply or primarily by a candidate’s close relationship with his wife and family.

What really matters is what a candidate and his party stand for. And that’s a problem at both the presidential and the senatorial level. I’m not talking just about flashpoints like the recent controversy over insurance coverage for contraception. Or, for all the attention it gets, abortion, where there really isn’t much of a gender gap.

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So what’s behind the gap? Different views on the proper role of government, says Elizabeth Sherman, professor of American politics at American University. “There are a larger number of men who believe that social programs should be cut, that taxes should be cut, that services should be cut,’’ she says. “Women are much more supportive of government programs and government services and the idea that government should be doing more in terms of health care and education.’’

Which is just what the Pew Research Center said in a new report examining differences in attitudes between men and women. “There is a broader level of support [among women] for government taking a bit more active role in terms of a social safety net and helping people,’’ says Michael Dimock, associate director at the center.

Women voters aren’t going to be swayed simply or primarily by a candidate’s dedication to his spouse and family.

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Why? “Almost two-thirds of women say that they or someone in their family might need a safety net program, while a majority of men say, ‘No, I don’t think anyone in my family will,’ ’’ says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “Men tend to think government is there for other people; women tend to think, ‘I might need this help someday.’ ’’

That’s a problem for candidates riding the Tea Party tiger and under close supervision by anti-tax-hike enforcer Grover Norquist. The only solutions Republicans currently have to our deficit woes are spending cuts and the hope for growth. The depth of those cuts should become more apparent as the campaign continues, particularly since the GOP has rallied around House budget chief Paul Ryan’s budgetary blueprint. That fiscal framework would reduce domestic spending dramatically as a percentage of GDP, while offering another (!) round of tax cuts - cuts whose 10-year cost would be $4.6 trillion (!!) and which Ryan says he’d pay for by closing unspecified (!!!) tax expenditures.

For Romney, who says he’s “very supportive’’ of the Ryan blueprint, a campaign that focuses on fiscal reality promises to worsen his problem with women voters. Although Brown wisely opposed the last Ryan budget, his temporizing on the question of new revenue leaves him vulnerable to charges that he’s more concerned with protecting tax breaks for upper earners than programs for the middle class.

It’s a dilemma that won’t be solved by highlighting wives and daughters - no matter how appealing those family members may be.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.
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