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The War War

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Not so when it comes to women voters, as everyone is by now well aware. Indeed, according to a Washington Post–ABC News poll, the gender gap between Obama and Romney currently yawns at a chasmic 19 points. To no small extent, Romney is suffering from wounds inflicted by the GOP nomination fight, in which Santorum’s ultracon positions on social and cultural issues forced the former Massachusetts governor further right than he wants or needs to be. (As for where he actually is—hey, who knows? We’re talking about Mitt Romney here!) And for weeks, Democrats, led by party chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, made hay of the spectacle, crowing loudly and gleefully about the Republican war on women.

It was this phenomenon that Romney attempted to turn on its head by maintaining that Obama’s economic policies were the real source of violence against the ladies. There were two mountainous problems with the ploy, however. First, it featured as its basis an entirely implausible (and quickly debunked) statistic: that women have accounted for 92 percent of job losses since the president took occupancy of the White House. And second, it was followed up by a campaign conference call—specifically on women’s issues, n.b.—in which Romney’s advisers couldn’t answer a basic query about whether the presumptive Republican nominee supported the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which made it easier for women to sue for equal pay and was the first piece of legislation Obama signed into law.

But then some manna fell from the heavens and straight into Team Romney’s lap in the form of the Rosen flap. Put aside the fact that Rosen doesn’t work for Obama or for the Democratic Party. Put aside that much of what she said on CNN would have gone without notice had it not been for one horrific line: “Guess what? [Romney’s] wife has never worked a day in her life.” That one line was enough to ignite a classic media freak-show conflagration, allowing Team Romney to seize the moral and political high ground and, most important, spring out of its defensive crouch and launch a fierce offensive.

Was the resulting 24-hour squall anything but absurd? Certainly not. But Democrats airily pooh-poohing the matter needed only to look at the reaction of the Obama campaign, the White House, and the DNC to get an accurate read on whether the Democratic forces sensed that they were suddenly vulnerable. Both Jim Messina and David Axelrod, two of Obama’s top political hands, insta-­tweeted strongly worded disavowals of Rosen’s remarks. Michelle Obama tweeted a message of implicit support for Ann Romney, and Obama himself followed up more explicitly in an TV interview that day. And by the following morning, DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse was running as fast as he could from not only Rosen but the war-on-women appellation itself: “I’m not a fan of the term,” Woodhouse told Slate’s Dave Weigel. “We in the DNC have not been running a campaign based on the term ‘war on women.’ ” To which all one can say is: Ahem.

It would be easy enough to dismiss all this as irrelevant. Yet the antic, manic, overwrought first week of the general election did convey clearly two lessons worth pondering. The first is that, on both taxes and the gender gap, the Romney campaign isn’t going down without a fight—and it would behoove the Obamans to beware the ample dangers of smugness and sloppiness and overplaying their (admittedly strong) hand. And the second is that the campaign henceforward will be anything but pretty. How personal things will get remains to be seen. But neither side has ever demonstrated any reluctance not just to wage war but to scorch the earth in the process. In other words, if you thought the GOP nomination tussle was sickeningly, deplorably, appallingly brutish, superficial, and mean, I have five words of advice: Avert your eyes now, people.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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