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How Obama Can Win With Women

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President Barack Obama greets women onstage.
President Barack Obama greets women onstage.
AP Photo/Mel Evans

Congratulations, Republicans! The tents have been struck and Mitt Romney will be your nominee. But before you pop the champagne, the women of America have a message for you: Welcome back to 1992 – the Year of the Woman.

The 2012 election was supposed to be all about the economy. But two months into the latest Republican delirium over birth control, Planned Parenthood, mandatory ultrasounds, "vaginal wands," Rush Limbaugh and Sandra Fluke, it’s turned into a referendum on sex and women, much to the glee of Democrats, who can scarcely believe their luck. President Obama has opened up a decisive lead against Romney thanks to a fresh surge in support from women voters. In swing states, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll, Obama has a 19-point lead over Romney among all women, up from 12 points before the GOP’s "war on women" was flushed into the open for all to see, and a 2-to-1 lead among women under 50. One-quarter of women in that survey say that the birth control issue is extremely important to their vote. A recent Pew poll has Obama leading Romney by 20 points among women nationally.  If the presidential election were held today, Obama would be reelected thanks to this overwhelming advantage with women, who've outnumbered men at the polls in every election since 1986.

Republicans ought to know better. After all, they’ve barreled down this particular cul-de-sac before, in 1992. That was the year the far-right dragooned President George H. W. Bush, another establishment 1 percenter, into a futile Holy War against women, feminism, and, essentially, the current century. Pat Buchanan, given the honor of presenting the keynote address on the opening night of the GOP convention, used the spotlight to declare a "culture war" and declaim, "Radical feminism [is] the agenda Clinton and Clinton would impose on America." Earlier, vice-president Dan Quayle, acting on William Kristol’s advice, blamed the Los Angeles riots on a fictional single mother. Dan’s wife Marilyn took to the convention stage to denounce working women. "Not everyone," she said, "joined the sexual revolution or dodged the draft. Not everyone believed that the family was so oppressive that women could only thrive apart from it." Around the same time, Bush consultant and current Fox News CEO Roger Ailes accused Hillary Clinton of subverting parents’ rights, while the televangelist Rev. Pat Robertson told his supporters that feminism wasn’t about "equal rights for women," but rather "a socialist anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians."

Only the bit about witchcraft didn’t make it into the Republican Party’s platform.

And how did all that venom about women work out for the GOP? Bill Clinton won the presidency with the largest gender gap ever and a record number of Democratic women swept into Congress. Women voted for Clinton over Bush by a 20-point margin.

If 1992 offers a cautionary tale for the Republicans – one they show little sign of heeding – it likewise provides a useful playbook for Obama and the Democrats.

Far-right zealots, it's true, built Bush the elder’s funeral pyre; but it took Bill and Hillary Clinton to light the match. "Frankly, I am fed up with politicians in Washington lecturing the rest of us about family values," Bill said in accepting the Democratic nomination. In his sole appearance at the convention before his closing night speech, he went to the Women’s Caucus and, with TV cameras rolling, described himself as "the son of a single mother, and the husband of a working wife." The Clintons and the Democratic party devoted the convention to a celebration of the party’s unequivocal commitment to the right to legal abortion and to the rise of women in politics. Night one featured the six Democratic women running for U.S. Senate; night two featured pro-choice Republicans on stage endorsing Clinton. "We have not abandoned our party," they said. "George Bush abandoned us."

Just as today’s Republican war on women has provoked women into action, so too, on the eve of the ’92 election, did the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings and the (perfectly rational) fear that Roe v. Wade would be overturned make women central players in that year’s contest. Anger over the conservative attack on women’s rights produced a host of unprecedented achievements: the largest pro-choice demonstrations ever; the most female candidates to run for U.S. Congress (the number of women went from 28 to 47 in the House and doubled in the Senate); a surge in new members and donations for women’s political groups; record turnout among young women voters. And this was all before the Internet opened for business or any non-elite owned a cellphone.

This isn’t to say that women’s rights were the top issue in the 92 election; the economy was. But the attention that Clinton and the reborn women’s movement focused on the Republicans’ reactionary views mattered. A lot. Bush lost one out of every six Republicans because of the party’s extreme antiabortion platform. Even more devastating, Bush lost 70 percent of pro-choice independents. (Pro-choice sentiment was then at an all-time high of 61 percent, and one-quarter of all voters said that abortion was their number one issue.) Clinton, for his part, lost very few antiabortion Democrats.

The gender gap in favor of Clinton was due above all to women’s "feminist consciousness," according to sociologists Clem Brooks and Jeff Manza, who also determined that Republican attacks on working women (are you listening Rick Santorum?) drove millions of Republican women permanently out of the GOP.

Plenty of Democrats, it's worth remembering, warned Clinton to quiet down about women, feminism, and abortion so as not to alienate "mainstream" America. Clinton ignored the advice. Will Obama show the same resolve when the polls tighten and Democrats start panicking?

So far, so good. Obama appears to be aware of the lessons of '92. He did not bow to pressure from Catholic Democrats (just about all men, by the way) to back down on universal no-cost insurance coverage for birth control, though he did compromise on how religious employers would be required to do so. When Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke, the law student who spoke in favor of the contraception mandate before Congress "a slut," the president got on the phone to Fluke and told her that her parents "should be proud." When Romney promised to "get rid of" Planned Parenthood, Obama cut a video for the organization. And just in case those suburban women swing voters might have tuned out already, what with spring vacation and soccer season upon us, Obama criticized the men's-only membership policy at Augusta, the club where the Masters golf tournament is being held. "It’s kind of long past the time when women should be excluded from anything," said White House spokesman Jay Carney earlier today, quoting his boss.

There’s still plenty of time for Democrats to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The GOP establishment is desperate to silence the loudmouthed misogynists and change the subject from lady parts and birth control to the economy. But Candidate Etch-A-Sketch should not be allowed to erase the stunning extremism of his primary battle. Romney’s promise to defund Planned Parenthood, eliminate the Title X Family Planning program, overturn Roe v. Wade, and support "personhood amendments" declaring a fertilized human egg to be a legal person pose a real and imminent threat to women's rights, freedoms, and health.

No doubt the sages will appear to tell Democrats to shut up about "distracting" social issues. American women have a message for you too: Remember your history. It’s the women, stupid.

Nancy L. Cohen is a historian and the author of the the new book, Delirium: How the Sexual Counterrevolution is Polarizing America. Follow her on Twitter (@nancylcohen) or on Facebook

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