Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich listens at left, as his wife Callista introduces him during a campaign stop at Hood College in Frederick, Md., Monday, April 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
You have to feel just a little sad for Callista Gingrich. When she began having an affair with Newt Gingrich, he was House minority leader and on his way to becoming Speaker. He later told his soon-to-be-ex-wife Marianne that Callista would “help me become president.” And, remarkably enough, there was a moment or two in recent months where that seemed possible. Gingrich surged to the top of the national polls in early December, and he won a dramatic victory in the South Carolina primary. Callista, a former Congressional staffer, has surely entertained a few daydreams of being first lady.
Not anymore. On Tuesday afternoon Callista Gingrich appeared at the Republican Women’s Club in New York, an imposing gray, seven-story townhouse across the street from Rockefeller Center. The venue was impressive, but the event was not. The entire press delegation consisted of a producer from ABC News and a two-person team from a Chinese television station. The club apparently struggled to pull together its attendance of roughly sixty people. (One attendee told me she was called by the club and asked to come.)
The demographics didn’t augur well for the future of the GOP. The average age at the luncheon tables appeared to be around 75. I counted more women in pearl necklaces, more women in purple suits and more women with platinum blonde dyed hair (including Gingrich on all counts), than women who aren’t white.
Not a single woman I interviewed—of those who would let me, they were surprisingly hostile and generally unwilling to divulge basic information, such as their names—intends to vote for Newt Gingrich in New York’s upcoming primary.
You might expect this to be a depressing event for Gingrich for other reasons as well. The Republican war on women has severely damaged the GOP’s brand among women. Consequently, were the election held today women voters would provide Obama with his margin of victory, and a healthy one at that.
So you would expect the Republican Women’s Club to be a pretty demoralized crowd, right? Wrong. The table closest to me boisterously toasted the GOP and joked that President Obama had better start working on his presidential library.
When I asked about their party’s unpopularity among women and the reasons for it, I was met with nothing more than blinkered partisan denial. Some people simply denied the math of recent polls showing that Romney’s advantage among men is outweighed by Obama’s far greater advantage among women. For example, a lawyer told me she isn’t worried about Republicans doing poorly among women because “historically, for whatever reasons, Republicans have appealed to men more and Democrats to women.” Others simply denied the numbers, saying it all depends on which polls you look at.
These are irrelevant truths. Obama’s margin varies from poll to poll, but he consistently leads in all of them. And while women have always leaned more Democratic than men, they are currently leaning much more Democratic than men are leaning Republican.
On the substance of the issues that have made the Republicans look so retrograde to so many women, the majority in attendance simply spouted GOP talking points. “The press is making such a big deal out of birth control, which [banning] isn’t Romney’s platform,” said a woman who gave her name only as Delores. “[Insurance coverage] has nothing to do with birth control,” said another. “I’d like to have my eyeglasses covered.”
Even the predicament of a rape victim brought to the nearest hospital, which may happen to be a Catholic institution, generated no sympathy or compromise. According to Romney, Gingrich et al., a woman in such a circumstance should be denied emergency contraception (also known as “the morning-after pill”) and forced to carry her rapist’s fetus. “After you’ve been raped it’s too late for contraception,” Delores offered.
Ironically, the attendee who appeared to be most in touch with political reality, and the most reasonable on the substance of reproductive freedom, was Marilyn Reagan, a distant cousin of former President Reagan. “If you’re going to frown on abortion you need to provide contraception,” she said. “It’s the [Republican] men I’m worried about. They want to preach. Some of it seems religiously motivated.”
When I accosted Gingrich on her way in and asked what she’d be speaking about she said, “American exceptionalism.” I asked whether she would address the Republican war on women. “No,” she said, with a laugh. “Why not?” I asked. “Because I’m here to talk about American exceptionalism,” she said.
Her speech didn’t give anyone a specific reason to vote Republican, much less for her husband. It was a paean to America’s fantastic history. The only nominal connection to contemporary politics was the false assertion she frequently repeated that liberals and “elites” think America to be undistinguished among the nations. (This is strange since she mentioned liberal heroes John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. as having “testified” to America’s greatness.) “Nothing pinpoints you as a conservative more than believing in American exceptionalism,” said Gingrich. Presumably that means she either thinks President Obama is a conservative, or she didn’t listen to either of his two speeches to Democratic National Conventions. (Delores explained that Obama abandoned his belief in American exceptionalism upon taking office, and that he has explicitly proclaimed upon America’s unexceptional nature from the Oval Office, although she couldn’t furnish any offhand examples.)
The Gingrich campaign is not the only one afraid of addressing women’s rights. On Wednesday morning Sam Stein of Huffington Post asked Mitt Romney’s campaign on a conference call with reporters whether Romney supports the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The answer? Six seconds of silence followed by “We’ll get back to you.” Hours later the Romney campaign made a half-hearted attempt to fight back on the gender front by issuing a statement from Representative Mary Bono Mack (R-CA) saying Obama is to blame for the rate of unemployment among women. Of course, macroeconomic conditions are completely unrelated to the question of whether Romney, like Obama, supports full legal equality for women.
I asked Reagan whether she thought Republican men would wise up on the subject of women’s rights. “It will take a long time,” she said.