Such tactics didn’t close the gender gap, which would remain intact until the Democratic shellacking of 2010, when women split between the parties. Unsurprisingly, the gap has returned with a vengeance this year. A post-Blunt-Limbaugh March Wall Street Journal–NBC News poll found that in an Obama-Romney matchup, Romney was winning among men by six points and losing among women by eighteen points, giving Obama an overall advantage of six points. Male Republican political hands aren’t losing sleep about it, for they assume that the gals will quickly forget these silly little tussles over contraception. “Nobody thinks it will matter in a couple of months,” said Vin Weber, the former Republican congressman and current Romney backer. “If Rick Santorum is not the nominee,” said Whit Ayres, the GOP pollster, “all the attention to these issues is going to evaporate.” According to Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, the requiring of ultrasound procedures in states like his has nothing to do with all the tumult. “This constant focus on social issues is largely coming from the Democrats,” he said on Meet the Press.
Whatever happens in November, there will be no Republican retreat in this war. Santorum is unlikely to be the GOP nominee, if he isn’t toast already, but his fade-out would no more change the state of play than if Limbaugh suddenly announced his retirement. What matters, and will continue to matter, is the damage inflicted by politicians and officials on women’s daily lives. Even a renewal of the once-bipartisan 1994 Violence Against Women Act is up for grabs in the current Congress.
The notion that Romney will somehow be more “moderate” on women’s issues than his opponents or party is not credible. The fact that he and his wife long ago supported Planned Parenthood in Massachusetts is no more a predictor of his agenda in the White House than the Bush family’s links to Planned Parenthood were of either Bush presidency. On policy, Romney and Santorum are on exactly the same page. Both endorsed the Blunt Amendment and the short-lived Komen defunding of Planned Parenthood. (Romney has called for the termination of all federal funding of Planned Parenthood.) Both men also want to shut down Title X—the main federal family-planning program supported by Nixon and then-Congressman Bush at its creation in 1970. Title X prevents abortions and unintended pregnancies by the hundreds of thousands per year, according to federal research. In addition to birth control, it also pays for preventive health care that includes cervical- and breast-cancer screening, testing for sexually transmitted diseases like HIV, and even some abstinence counseling for teenagers. It would be overstating the case to say that the men running for president and running Congress in the GOP are opposed to all these services; the evidence suggests that such female concerns aren’t on their radar screen.
Republicans in state government are not waiting for a Romney presidency to gut Title X and act on the rest of their wish list. Rick Perry has already rejected Title X money for Texas, assuring that countless poor women in his domain will be denied access to all reproductive health care, from birth-control pills to Pap smears. In other states from Pennsylvania to Arizona, Virginia-style laws mandating government medical procedures on pregnant women have made serious advances. So have “personhood” laws, which hold the promise to make birth control and family planning as endangered as abortion rights. The moment the state declares a fertilized egg a “person” is the moment when the morning-after pill and IUDs, not to mention in vitro fertilization, become, by definition, illegal.
To believe that Romney will somehow depart from his party’s misogyny in the White House, you have to believe that everything he has said about these issues during the primary campaign is a lie. You have to believe that the “real” Romney is the one who endorsed Roe v. Wade when he was running against Ted Kennedy in 1994, and that all the Etch A Sketch–ing since then has been a transitory attempt to pander to his party’s base. But a look at Romney’s personal history suggests that the real Romney is the one before us now—the sincere exponent of a deeply held faith whose entire top hierarchy is male and that still denies women the leadership roles that are bestowed on every Mormon male beginning at age 12. (At least blacks were finally granted full equality in the Church of Latter Day Saints in 1978.) The widely reported examples of Romney’s own personal behavior in his church roles as ward bishop and stake president in the Boston area suggest that he had not only never questioned this ethos but completely internalized it. He seems impervious to vulnerable women in crisis and need beyond his own family.