In the War on Women, Who’s Fighting, and for What?

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The Romneys Photo: Justin Sullivan/2012 Getty Images

"Women's issues" has always been a ridiculously broad, winningly innocuous term thrown around by magazine editors, bureaucrats, and politicians afraid of offending anyone with a more particular descriptor, or mention of the word sex. In the 2012 presidential campaign, somehow it's morphed from "women's issues" to women as an issue. Part of that is just electoral math: There are some crucial swing-vote populations within that very broad fifty percent of the population — those famous soccer moms, for instance — and after the Santorum-inspired national debate on contraception, Obama has even more of an advantage with women (nineteen points) than Democrats typically get. Romney will lose the election if he can't narrow that gap. But there's another reason: In an election that's supposed to come down to the economy, talking about women offers each side an escape hatch from fighting over unemployment numbers, which is tough, and just gets voters depressed, really. Cultural issues get people riled up and paying attention to the dull talking heads spouting on cable news.

Like, say, Hilary Rosen, the Democratic consultant whose glib line last night about wealthy stay-at-home mom Ann Romney never having worked a day in her life was a giant bow-wrapped present to Republicans. The GOP — thanks to Santorum, the Komen fracas and various state legislatures interested in making the term "transvaginal ultrasound" familiar to all Americans — has lately made it very easy for even moderate and Republican ladies to conclude that, as Frank Rich wrote recently in New York, the GOP's "women problem" isn't just about framing.  Thanks to Rosen, the GOP gets to counter that Democrats are the ones who have a problem with women, and not just women, but mothers, the universally beloved creatures found on both sides of the aisle.

The error was unforced. Rosen was actually in the middle of talking about economic issues, and how the Republican platform doesn't help working moms (also beloved creatures, also found on both sides of the aisle). "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,'" she said, just before her oops-line.

The best Republican answer so far to the so-called War on Women has been citing stats on how many  jobs women have lost under Obama. Romney, with his flip-floppy record on reproductive issues, has tried to steer the conversation to more neutral ground with his very recent public support of the Lily Ledbetter Act and equal pay. That didn't exactly kick up a lot of dust. But now he has an easy way to score points, and possibly a way to reframe the war itself, to muddy up the question of who exactly the aggressors are and who the targets are.

As the conversation has snowballed, mashing together a diffuse range of issues related to women, both sides have reached for the moral high ground. The chance to moralize about choices — rich people are selfish! sex outside of marriage is bad! — might, after all, be the main thing uniting these "women's issues," which, in this election, have become a peculiarly-charged stand-in for talking about morality more generally.