Have Mitt Romney and Barack Obama Forgotten That Women Exist -- And That They Have the Vote?

During the first presidential debate last week, a lot of topics got their share of airtime: taxes, healthcare, Big Bird, Barack Obama’s wedding anniversary.

Since the debate, a lot of other things have been talked about: chutzpah, the 47%, poll numbers, Big Bird, and Mitt Romney’s "bounce."

Unfortunately in the midst of all this chatter, the hot-button issues that affect half of the population have been strangely missing.

Indeed, a popular tweet the night of the debate noted that the president’s debate-opening anniversary shout-out to his wife Michelle was the only mention of women or women’s issues in an hour and a half supposedly devoted to domestic policy--and in the wake of a year in which such topics were rarely out of the news for long. So given that everything from birth control to equal pay had been on the campaign's radar, it was odd to see these issues disappear from the discourse. The loss of momentum in this area joined the narrative of Obama not hitting out on his strengths.

Obama will need his lead among women to win.

But more important than what Obama needs from women is what women need from politicians like him--and that’s help. Because the doors to clinics across the country, from Texas to Brooklyn to Virgina are closing, leaving women bereft of basic care for themselves and their families. The idea that the economy and women’s health can be separated is laughable.

The 51% Missing from the Debate

Bryce Covert nailed it the morning after the debate in her piece for the Nation, explaining just what policies of his own tenure Obama could have mentioned to appeal to women voters--and how he might have made these kinds of gender equality and rights issues visible to the viewing public:

"Romney talked up his plan to overturn the Affordable Care Act as fast as he can. That includes the mandate that insurance cover contraception as a preventative care service without a co-pay, a provision that Ryan has said his team would undo on 'day one.' That means women will go back to shelling out nearly $12,000 over their lifetimes for hormonal birth control. But the ACA also undoes gender rating, saving women $1 billion a year in paying more for the same services. Obama could have easily brought up either to demonstrate how anti-woman the pledge to repeal the ACA really is.

"He could have also mentioned the first bill he signed into law, the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which Romney has struggled with. Remember that awkward five-second silence when his advisers were asked whether Romney supports the bill?"

This failure to play to the 51% may have hurt the candidate. As TPM reported, a “shocking” new Pew poll showed Romney with a bounce: “Obama’s 18-point lead with women shown in Pew’s previous poll is also gone, with the two candidates now tied among female voters.” (Okay, so it’s one poll that’s maybe not so reliable, but the importance of continuing to touch on the GOP’s extremism and bring over middle-of-the-road women voters can’t be overstated.) Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg told the Washington Post that the main reason for Obama's recent poll slippage is that he is losing his previously-strong connection with unmarried women.

That initial lead that appears to be slipping somewhat had been built when Democrats realized that they ought to be aggressive on reproductive rights, for once, in the words of Irin Carmon, during the halcyon days of early September, this year. You know, last month:

In a striking departure, Democrats have embraced the opportunity to do something they haven’t done on a national level in a while: reframe the debate. Democrats are moving off the conservative terrain of the ’90s, and actually arguing that safe abortion access is part of a comprehensive agenda of women’s rights. Not “privacy.” Not a “tragedy.” Women’s full participation, without coercion.

As Carmon noted, the extreme positions of Paul Ryan and Todd Akin helped paint them as wackjobs and the Democrats as rational, and Democrats gleefully drove the point home.

Where have those good old days gone?

Doors to Clinics Closing

The idea that women’s rights are at stake in this election is far from abstract. Between the economy closing some clinics and the right-wing closing others, the long-feared return to “before Roe” conditions is closer than ever. Recently, Business Week ran a sobering story about the new "world before Roe" that describes the “arduous” long trips, high costs and disruptive waiting periods required of women who get abortions in many areas.

All this is already happening under an Obama administration. So yes, while there’s the issue of Supreme Court vacancies and the future of Roe v. Wade, as well as the facets of Obamacare that improve women’s health and prevent insurance discrimination against them there are also state-specific remnants of the vicious 2011-2012 series of laws and measures commonly called the “War on Women” which have resulted in clinics actually closing, services ending, and those seeking care being left out in the cold.
  • Virginia clinics are facing a legal back and forth over "Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers," or  TRAP laws that are often accompanied in stories with the word “onerous” because they force clinics to adhere to the same specifications as hospitals. If the election goes to the GOP in Virginia, all or most of its abortion providers may close down.
  • Texas’ health services for women have been absolutely decimated, as Andrea Grimes discovered, thanks to the state’s defunding of Title X Family Planning programs. Grimes called around to try to get the kind of Medicaid-backed care the state said would be available without Planned Parenthood and found that “excluding Planned Parenthood from the Women's Health Program absolutely reduces access to quality care. Full stop...the systems [Texas] says it has in place to support women without Planned Parenthood don't work.”
  • Mississippi’s lone clinic is also running out of time thanks to TRAP laws, meaning the state could be the first without a single abortion provider.
  • Arizona’s TRAP laws and late-term abortion ban are now forcing rural women in that state to travel for hours, sometimes over the border to Mexico, to obtain services.
  • Even in Brooklyn, New York, a clinic closed its doors, dogged by protesters and high costs associated with the recession.

Lest the public start forgetting the "war on women" just because it was out of the headlines, Lizz Winstead made a video explaining how disruptive all these laws are for the everyday lives of patients:

Winstead is right. Whether or not Obama squandered his sizeable lead with women at the first debate, women---and people of all gender orientations who need reproductive healthcare, access and freedom--need politicians who are on their side. The damage done by the last wave of ultraconservative legislation remains. It hasn’t been undone. That message needs to be repeated again and again, along with this one, from Ilyse Hogue: “All aspects of our lives get categorically more difficult when we lose control over decisions about family planning and reproduction.”

Some Are Speaking Out

Still, not all voices are silent right now. Apparently celebrities like Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon are getting as annoyed as us progressive journos, and speaking out about reproductive rights, as the new "Draw the Line" campaign and video from the Center for Reproductive Rights (below) shows. But the politicians shouldn't leave the line-drawing to Hollywood.

That's why groups like Ultraviolet and the ACLU are urging members to flood the forum that funnels questions from the public to the debate moderators, asking them to address women's issues in the next presidential debate. "We can't let the final domestic policy debate go by without these important issues being addressed," my email from Ultraviolet read. "Women are 52% of the population, and all of these issues impact not just women, but our families, the economy, and all of society."

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