News & Politics

The Democrats' Woman Problem

Is the Democratic Party's obsession with framing pushing women out of the picture?
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean told Tim Russert on "Meet The Press" last week that if he could strike the words "choice" and "abortion" out of the lexicon of the Democratic party, he would. Echoing George Lakoff’s influential book -- "Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate" -- Dean said, "When you talk about framing this debate the way it ought to be framed... this is an issue about who gets to make up their minds."

Lakoff, the current darling of party strategists agonizing over what went wrong in the last election, says the Dems didn’t get their ideas out in a way that fit the emotional "frames" already in people’s minds about the role of government in their lives.

The Democrats put out reams of facts about Bush’s lies on weapons of mass destruction, his hypocrisy on Leave No Child Behind and his plans to dismantle Social Security. In spite of this overwhelming evidence that Bush is bad for the country, people voted for him anyway. Ominously for the future, women -- historically the largest bloc in the Democratic base -- voted Republican in greater numbers than they have in recent history. The gender gap, a mainstay for the Democrats since 1980, virtually disappeared, with Kerry beating Bush among women by only three percent.

Lakoff is probably right that Bush’s appeal to women and men alike was more emotional than rational. But the erosion of women’s support for Democrats was also a result of the Kerry campaign strategy. The Kerry campaign shied away from talking to women at all, choosing instead to go for the white male warrior vote. Women’s advocates were alarmed about this from the beginning, when the Democrats refused to fund a strategy to get women to the polls, while the Bush team had a person in every precinct who was responsible for turning out the female "W" vote.

Even female Republican pollsters like Kellyanne Conway admit that women lean Democratic "if left to their own devices." That’s because women depend more on the social safety net (the compassionate "parent government" in Lakoff-speak), and the Democrats have traditionally stood for better social services like expanding health care and child care, and ensuring retirement through Social Security (women’s main source of retirement income ). But the Democrats failed to exploit this natural advantage, instead trying to out-tough-guy Bush on the war and homeland security. According to the Votes for Women 2004 project, Republican women’s events were about how much the campaign valued women, while Democratic women’s events were about extracting money from female donors to use on general campaign themes. Significantly, among women who stayed away from the polls, homeland security ranked third behind the top concerns of jobs and economic security and health care security.

Leaving women out of the debate was not new for the Democrats. They have shown us in the last two elections that they don’t want to be too vocal about women. Every time George Bush said to Al Gore, "I don’t trust the government, I trust the people," Gore had the perfect opportunity to counter with "except for women in making their own decisions about their own bodies." He never once took that opportunity. In 2004, the Dems avoided "women’s issues" at every turn, even taking the Equal Rights Amendment out of the platform for the first time in 40 years. When their own internal polling showed the pay gap as one of the top concerns for women, the candidate didn’t want to talk about it publicly. As for the abortion issue, only those far inside the Beltway could decode Kerry’s rambling answer in the final debate to conclude he was -- sorry, Howard -- pro-choice. Even so, the DNC is now blaming the loss on "being forced into the idea of defending the idea of abortion," according to Dean.

It’s true most women don’t get up in the morning and think "I hope abortion stays legal today." More likely they get up and think, "I hope the baby sitter shows up, nobody gets sick, the car holds together one more year, the older kids don’t get shot at school, and the boss doesn’t pat me on the rear and promote the guy I trained over me." But unless the Democrats are willing to talk directly to women about those concerns -- in emotional terms, if necessary -- then "reframing" abortion won’t do the trick. And lifting "personal freedom and personal responsibility" from the Republican playbook -- as Dean is now doing -- won’t do any good either. When women get up on Election Day morning, they’ll still think about elephants.
Martha Burk is a political psychologist and author of "Cult of Power: Sex Discrimination in Corporate America and What Can Be Done About It," released last month from Scribner.
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