Last night, CBS introduced us to Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who delivered the Republican response to the State of the Union Address, with just three sentences: “She chairs the House GOP conference, which means she ranks fourth in the House leadership. She’s married to a retired naval officer. They have three young children, including a two-month old.” Short, sweet, and to the point. The point being that she’s a mom.
McMorris Rodgers was quick to validate the fact that two of three of her introductory biographical details were about her family, not her politics. Within 30 seconds she was telling us the most important moments aren’t happening on Capitol Hill, but at home: "Kissing your kids goodnight. Figuring out how to pay the bills. Getting ready for tomorrow's doctor's visits.” The fact that McMorris Rodgers was selected to respond to the president’s annual address has been widely explained as the GOP’s “new way” of counteracting the fact that prominent Party members appear to have been media-trained by Todd Akin.
But the Republicans’ decision to focus on McMorris Rodgers’s mommy cred illustrates just how little they understand about their woman problem. They’re responding to what they see as a superficial problem — offensive quotes about unchecked libidos and “victimology” — with a superficial solution. True, Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee aren’t helping the Party win female hearts and minds. But their gaffes are just symptoms of the underlying issue, which is that the policies the GOP advocates do nothing to improve the lives of the majority of American women. And we know it.
We’re now half a decade into a GOP strategy of putting mothers front and center in a flailing attempt to win women’s votes. It’s not working. In the 2012 election, the gender gap was the widest it's ever been, with women overwhelmingly supporting Obama’s re-election. Despite the inclusion of Sarah Palin — who, like McMorris Rodgers, has an accessible-mom persona and likes to use her child with Down syndrome as a pro-life talking point — on the GOP ticket in 2008, women also voted Democrat by a wide margin. The lesson Republicans have repeatedly learned the hard way is that women voters like having access to birth control and abortion, and want politicians to make the workplace fairer for women. The friendly moms who are front and center in the GOP haven’t made us forget about the public-policy transgressions this party has committed against us.
Just look at McMorris Rodgers’s record. Despite her kid-centric talk, she once opposed the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. And for all the bootstrappy references to her personal career trajectory (did she mention she once worked at McDonalds?), when the committee she sat on voted on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, McMorris Rodgers was nowhere to be found. While women voters who tuned into her State of the Union response might not have known these particulars, there is a baseline understanding that the Republican party doesn’t believe in policies that aim to make the world a fairer place for women. That hasn’t stopped them from trying to convince us otherwise.
When it comes to politics, deciding who has your best interests at heart comes down to trust. Yes, there are voting records to consider, but there are no real guarantees that a candidate you elect is going to follow through and protect your right to access birth control or get paid fairly. In the rancorous 2008 Democratic primary, much of the Hillary-versus-Obama drama boiled down to whether women voters could trust a man to fight for our rights to the same degree we could trust a woman. When John McCain picked Sarah Palin as a running mate — a woman whose politics were squarely at odds with helping other women succeed — it only heightened the confusion. I remember how scared Democratic operatives were that Palin would be taken seriously by women voters who responded to her persona. But the truth is that a woman candidate is not the same thing as a woman’s candidate. Most women voters, in the end, saw her as more Trojan horse than grizzly mom and relegated her to the dustbin of reality TV.
Like Palin before her, McMorris Rodgers projects the supermom image that is quickly becoming the GOP’s go-to female archetype. Yet there’s a fair chance that even this superficial solidarity won’t resonate with women voters. “For most American women, this is the era of coming to grips with not having it all,” writes Hanna Rosin at Slate. “For Republican politicians, however, it’s the 1980s of the Enjoli, bring-home-the-bacon, 24-hour woman.” Why didn’t the GOP realize this decades earlier? The supermom archetype is perfect for a party whose policies send the message that if you’re not getting ahead, it’s because you aren’t working hard enough.
The Party is decades behind in its gender messaging — not to mention its actual policies — because it’s not actually representative. Only 8 percent of House Republicans are women, and there are only four Republican women in the Senate. This gives McMorris Rodgers and her ilk higher visibility, but also places greater pressure on them to fall in with the party line. It’s a dynamic that any woman who’s been outnumbered in the workplace can relate to. Just because prominent GOP moms manage to have a demanding career while raising three small kids doesn’t mean they can be trusted to make the same thing easier for other women.
As CBS reiterated in its outro, “the congresswoman is the mother of three … so very busy household back in Spokane for sure.” Thanks. We get it.