12 Apr 2012

Romney vs Rosen: the war on women gets personal

One issue has dominated the US election campaign today: women, work and stay-at-home moms. A Democratic operative’s comments about Mitt Romney’s wife Ann has sparked a political firestorm.

Ann and Mitt Romney (reuters)

It began with one of those remarks that probably seemed innocuous at the time, but which has suddenly overtaken the US presidential race. Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen was on a panel discussion on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 on Wednesday night, when she criticised the likely Republican candidate Mitt Romney for using his wife Ann as his touchstone for all matters female.

Mrs Romney, Rosen said, “actually never worked a day in her life”. And, she went on, “She’s never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing.”

But it was the first comment that triggered the instant outcry. Right on cue, Ann Romney herself took to Twitter with her debut tweet: “I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work.”

I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work. Ann Romney

The off-the-cuff remark was a priceless gift to the Republicans, who wasted no time in putting their spin on the debate, with possibly their most rapid-reaction effort to date. Although Rosen has never been formally linked to any of the campaigns, Romney’s spokesman Eric Ferhnstrom described her as an Obama adviser, before accusing her of insulting hard-working moms. The Twittersphere went berserk. Ann Romney’s name started trending top, world wide.

The Obama team swung into damage-limitation, through Twitter, of course. Campaign manager Jim Messina declared: “I could not disagree with Hilary Rosen any more strongly. Her comments were wrong, and family should be off limits. She should apologise.” Other leading Democrats, including campaign guru David Axelrod, chimed in. Eventually even Michelle Obama tweeted her view, that “every mother works hard.”

No matter that Rosen herself has two kids, and that she tweeted back to Romney: “I am raising children too. But most young American women HAVE to BOTH earn a living AND raise children. You know that don’t u?” And, she said the issue was really about Mitt Romney describing her as his “expert” on women and the economy.

Television face-off

Inevitably the row, by now dubbed “Rosengate”, proved way too big for the realms of social media: by Thursday, both Ann Romney and Hilary Rosen were apearing on television to defend their corner. On Fox News, Romney said she’d made a “career choice” to stay at home and raise her sons, insisting that the choices all women made should be respected. As a breast cancer survivor, she said she did realise what it was like to struggle, insisting Mitt often told her: “Ann, your job is more important than mine.”

Being a mom is the hardest job in the world, and that’s the truth of it. Hilary Rosen

Rosen herself, despite the pressure to apologise, at first declined to say sorry. Instead, she stressed that she had nothing against stay-at-home moms, saying that “being a mom is the hardest job in the world, and that’s the truth of it.” What the debate should be about, she declared, was “the waitress in somewhere in Nevada who has two kids and whose daycare is being cut because of the Romney-Ryan budget.”

But in the fevered world of news-cycle-driven politics, the point is rarely the point. The Republicans knew very well they were in a bad place when it came to women voters: “suitcase on the lawn” bad, to paraphrase Slate’s John Dickerson. The latest ABC/Washington Post poll put Obama almost 20 points ahead of Romney among women.

Republicans sieze their chance

Thanks to their obsession with conservative social issues like birth control and abortion, the GOP seemed unable to escape the charge that they were waging a ‘War on Women’. Until now. Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin summed up this sudden reversal of fortunes, mocking Hilary Rosen for managing to do the one thing that had eluded the party so far – uniting the Right around Mitt Romney. “Heckuva job, Hil”, she taunted.

RNC co-chair Sharon Day accused the Democrats of “attacking women who make a choice to stay at home and raise a family”, trying to ram home the image of a liberal political elite who could barely contain their distain for ordinary mothers. At the same time, the party pushed out a research document claiming Obama’s economic policies had hit women disproportionally hard, along with a handy graphic accusing his White House of being a hostile place for women to work. A conference call with reporters mentioned Rosen within the first minute: all four journalists allowed questions asked about her.

All this seems like an uncanny echo of the “Mommy Wars” of old: sparked by Hillary Clinton’s throwaway comment during her husband’s 1992 campaign: “I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession.” That polarised the public too, over the role of work in womens’ lives: eventually Mrs Clinton was forced into publishing her very own chocolate chip cookie recipe, as what should have been a considered debate about parenthood, working lives and economic choices, became trivialised beyond belief.

Phoney wars

No cookies in 2012: but an apology, from Rosen, along with an appeal to get beyond the “phoney wars” and return to matters of real substance. That seems highly unlikely. One conservative group has already posted comments sneering at Rosen, who is gay, for adopting children, while “Ann raised 5 of her own”.

Nasty stuff. It’s like someone, say, accusing a student of being a prostitute for talking about contraception. Oh, wait. That already happened. The debate rages on, dominating the current news cycle at least. On the upside, the important issue of women, work and the economy is suddenly a central part of the election campaign. But if this is what the War on Women looks like, can someone please broker a ceasefire?

Felicity Spector writes about US affairs for Channel 4 News