Beware the Bushwomen
After September 11, 2001, the President said, "I really don't think about politics right now," but his political team was still at work. As the 2002 midterm elections approached, female swing voters danced like sugar-plum fairies in Karl Rove's head. We know that because someone on the President's staff lost a computer disk containing the senior adviser's election advice. The disk showed up in Washington's Lafayette Park, and Rove's PowerPoint presentation made its way into the hands of journalists. President Bush, said Rove, needs to "grow" his outreach to Latinos, suburban women and Catholics. No one did more campaigning in 2002 than Hughes. ("The rumors of my retirement have been greatly exaggerated," says Hughes, and she's correct.) In 2002 the First Lady stumped for a candidate her husband couldn't, pro-choice Republican Connie Morella. No one except Dick Cheney is more sought-after for campaign fundraisers than First Lady Laura (she raised more than $5 million for her husband's re-election campaign between June 2003 and January 2004), and she arouses none of the negative publicity provoked by the Vice President's ties to corporate contractors in Iraq.
Rove knows the numbers. Fifty-two percent of voters are female, with suburban women making up about 25-30 percent of the electorate. As pollster Anna Greenberg explains, women, especially white, married suburban women, are "the least solidly attached voters out there," the biggest swingers. Everything else remaining as it is, in 2004 suburban women could win or lose the race. They are certainly the largest "unattached" bloc within the Republicans' grasp.
In 2003, another GOP memo turned up. Mounting job losses and dying soldiers in Iraq had sent Bush's numbers tumbling from the dizzy heights of his post-9/11 popularity down below their pre-9/11 low mark. In California the GOP was hoping to benefit from the effort to recall Democratic Governor Gray Davis. The memo, by California GOP organizer Julie Leitzell, declared that the recall election presented a unique opportunity to target disaffected voters, especially women, before the 2004 presidential race. "It's important that we use this opportunity (and hot news hook) to present an image of diverse Republican women (moms, educators, business owners, students, working women,)" wrote Leitzell. "We want to make sure the media are steered toward the 'common-sense women against Davis' angle.... We are working on getting a big-name female draw for each local event."
This year is another Bushwomen moment. As the economy sputters and living-wage jobs die out, Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy are a liability at the polls. The President himself is no Clinton when it comes to empathy. His "I feel your pain" comes across as a smirk. Besides, the public knows something now about the Big Oil bosses and contract-connected CEOs who pepper his Administration. On social issues the Democrats will go to town with the image of Bush, backed by a celebrating mob of white-haired, white-skinned male congressmen and senators, signing the twenty-first century's first law imposing criminal penalties on doctors who help women get abortions.
Thanks to news accounts that emphasize personality over politics, the female members of Bush's inner circle work well as identity-politics puppets; a kind of PC protection device, they provide superficial cover while the Administration pursues policies that take a disproportionate toll on the lives of women and people of color. The Bushwomen do for Bush's image what "pro-life" language did for the Republican Party's rhetoric.
In the hot seat after the resignation of Trent Lott over comments Lott made on Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday, Bush was forced to defend his record on racism. Asked by the press about his own civil rights record and his consistent refusal to meet with NAACP leaders, Bush gestured to his Secretary of State and National Security Adviser, as if that itself were a sufficient substitute for policy. "Let's see," said Bush. "There I was, sitting around the leader with--the table with foreign leaders, looking at Colin Powell and Condi Rice."
When it came to invading Afghanistan and then Iraq, the White House deployed its female faces to cast a glowing light on war. In mid-November 2001, word was filtering out of Afghanistan that US forces had dropped on alleged Taliban sites two 15,000-pound bombs known as "Daisy Cutters," which are so large they can be delivered only by dropping them out of a cargo plane. They kill every living thing within a radius of 300-900 feet. The First Lady, who'd come to the comfort of bereaved American families after 9/11, went on the radio to reassure the public that the war was not about revenge but about liberation. Running down the record of Taliban brutality toward women--long ignored by the US government--the United States wasn't alone, she said: "Civilized people throughout the world are speaking out in horror, not only because our hearts break for the women and children in Afghanistan, but also because in Afghanistan, we see the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us."