In the Arena

Romney’s Woman Problem

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The Washington Post has a poll out today that shows Mitt Romney trailing Barack Obama by significant numbers in the overall electorate, and especially among women. Such polls mean little at this stage of the race. (Bill Clinton was running 3rd, behind Ross Perot, in the spring of 1992–and given his lounge-singer proclivities, was also perceived to have a woman problem). But Mike Gerson has a good  column, also in the Post today, analyzing Romney’s predicament. Before I get to Gerson, though, let me say a nice word about George W. Bush.

Or rather, let me share Gerson’s nice thought: a strong part of Bush’s portfolio in 2000 was the perception that he cared about the poor, that he would pursue a humane immigration policy and that he wanted to reform schools. This “compassionate conservatism” is denigrated on all sides today, but I found it attractive at the time. And Bush worked at it, a bit, when he became President–his “no child left behind” law was a necessary first step toward making teachers accountable, his office of faith-based social programs was a good idea–and John D’Iulio was a great man to run it–but the initiative was lost in a welter of cynical politics and the mania that overtook the Bush Administration after 9/11.

Still, you didn’t see or hear half-crazed Republicans screaming about “socialism” or calling people “avowed Muslims” during Bush’s time in office. He somehow kept the Limbaugh wing in check. A good part of that is attributable to the fact that a black man named Barack Hussein Obama wasn’t tickling the right-wing’s paranoia at the time–but Bush himself has to be credited with being a man who not only actively discouraged that sort of rant, but also had an extensive network of close black and Latino friends, and strong woman advisers in his inner circle.

Fast forward to Romney, and listen to Gerson:

 The GOP’s main problem is not the contraceptive issue; it is the perception that it has become too ideological on many issues. Women and independent voters have seen a party enthusiastically confirming its most damaging stereotypes. The composite Republican candidate — reflecting the party’s ideological mean — has been harsh on immigration, confrontational on social issues, simplistic in condemning government and silent on the struggles of the poor. How many women would find this profile appealing on eHarmony?

This is the hidden curse of the Republican congressional triumph of 2010. Republican activists came to believe that purity is all that is necessary for victory. But a presidential candidate, it turns out, requires a broader ideological attraction than your average tea party House freshman.

Gerson’s remedy is that Romney find himself a nice humane issue and associate himself with it. That would be a start, although it’s more difficult now that he’s established himself in accordance with wing-nuttery on so many issues. Gerson also criticizes the oblique, technocratic way that Romney addresses his audiences. That may be harder to fix. I have no doubt that Romney has many of the same sympathies as George W. Bush regarding “the least of these”–I’ve heard testimony to this effect from his Massachusetts constituents, and his health care plan showed real regard for the problems confronted by the working poor. But, in terms of ease, he seems more like Bush the Elder than Bush the Son. Short of a personality transplant and a titanic Obama screwup, that is going to be a difficult obstacle to overcome.