On Wednesday morning after the November 5 election, a hard Right outlet, The Washington Times, headlined with the following caption: “Christie’s win, Cuccinelli’s loss: Two playbooks for defending against the ‘war on women.’”
For any woman who wants the freedom to manage her own life, health, and family, having the words war on women at the top of such a partisan news purveyor, even in quotes, is reason to crow. It means that the war metaphor has become broad shorthand for Republican vagina politics. It means the Right has failed to replace the “war” tag with one that puts Conservative goals in a positive light.
More significantly, it means that even old men who yearn for 1950’s gender hierarchy are on notice that pissing off female voters may not be a path to victory. Last fall, Romney’s binders full of women turned on him; he lost the female vote 44 percent to Obama’s 55, but after the election, the Republican self-critique focused largely on how badly they had alienated Hispanics. Conservatives offered up Cruz and Rubio as the fresh face of the party. That’s Ted Cruz, who can’t tell the difference between a contraceptive and an abortifacient and Marco Rubio who opposed the Violence Against Women Act, supports a 20-week abortion ban, and thinks equal pay is a legal headache.
Now, according to exit polls, Cuccinelli lost women by half again Romney’s margin, 37 to 63. Have they finally gotten the message? Republican spin doctors are not conceding much. The story line? It’s all about tone:
“One of the key planks in the Democrats’ ‘win at all costs’ playbook is the ‘war on women’ maneuver,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist. “While both Cuccinelli and Christie are pro-life, only Cuccinelli fell headlong into this hyper-emotional trap. Christie’s strong favorability with female voters is a testament to his understanding the importance of tone, rhetoric, outreach and personal favorability when conveying one’s views. Cuccinelli, on the other hand, is a textbook example of how not to handle the [Democrats’] propaganda slime.”
O’Connell is not altogether wrong. Mr. Christie has opposed abortion, marriage equality, and fair pay, yet won 57 percent of female voters in New Jersey. But he also came through for New Jersey families after Superstorm Sandy, setting aside partisan posturing to provide rapid relief for those who needed it. He is credited with having secured tens of billions in federal relief funds. He behaved like an old school Republican, one who has an honest difference in opinion with Democrats about how we get to a better future, but who understands that public servants are paid to serve the public, not the party.
Virginia Republican and former congressman Thomas M. Davis III acknowledges another difference, saying that Mr. Cuccinelli has sponsored some “goofy bills” during his political career. But he too, expresses the hope that a smarter communications approach may solve the problem: “It is a question of how you present it. You don’t have to be pro-choice to win statewide in New Jersey and Virginia, but you have to handle the issue appropriately.”
Are women suckers for tone? Republican analysts aren’t the only culture warriors who hope so. In a provocative opinion piece, “Are We Being Bamboozled by This Charming Pope?” commentator Terry Sanders points out that even though favorability ratings of the Vatican have improved dramatically this year, Pope Ratzinger’s most harmful policies are being upheld by the kinder, gentler Francis. Sanderson argues that the new pope is merely rebranding Catholicism rather than engaging in substantive change, and in fact, the Vatican seems intent on reassuring the conservative loyalists that this is the case.
In September, Pope Francis made headlines around the world by saying that the Church should “drop its obsession with divisive issues,” but just a day later, in front of a Catholic audience he pontificated about the evils of abortion, saying that every pregnancy aborted “bears the face of Jesus.” An Australian priest who supported gay marriage and ordination of women was defrocked, and in fact became the first person excommunicated under Francis. When asked by PBS host Bonnie Erbé whether the pope has been flip-flopping, Conservative Catholic and former Bush advisor, Mercedes Viana Schlapp put it bluntly, “Look, I’m a communicator, and I’ve got to tell you, the Pope’s got the right tone.”
The third biggest force in the U.S. culture wars after the Vatican and Republican Party has been the Southern Baptist Convention, with almost 16 million members including Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Under former director Richard Land, the SBC booted female faculty out of seminaries, halted ordination of women, and threw its full weight into vagina politics. Land lead the charge against the “radical homosexual agenda” and lobbied for a national ban on gay marriage.
But like their Catholic and Republican allies, the Baptists had a come-to-Jesus trauma that triggered an epiphany: They realized they were losing, and in particular losing young people who were fleeing their institutions in droves. Russell Moore, who inherited Land’s role, has warned Baptists that they shouldn’t be “mascots for any political faction.” His answer to how Baptists can respond to advancing gay rights? Love your gay and lesbian neighbours.
And yet, behind the conciliatory surface Moore offers little real change on the issues that divide us. He equates the evils of abortion and slavery, says the church will never support gay marriage, and clings to the tired distinction between loving the (homosexual) sinner and hating the sin. Southern Baptists owners are well represented among the for profit companies seeking corporate conscience exemptions to the contraceptive mandate, and Falwell’s American Center for Law and Justice is providing the legal muscle for Catholic and Protestant ACA opponents alike. Almost every week, Moore travels to D.C., where he works to turn conservative theological priorities into law.
What kind of welcome will he get there in coming months? That depends in part on how the divisions in the Republican party play out: Will traditional conservatives or tea party activists gain the upper hand? It also depends on how party leaders interpret their recent wins and losses: Is the difference between Cuccinelli and Christie one of form or substance? And it depends on whether free thinking, free living women (and the men who love them) are finally mad enough to be scary. _______________________________________
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Subscribe to her articles at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.
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