The media verdict is in: Romney won, Obama lost and no one likes Jim Lehrer anymore. But for a debate that was abysmally moderated, it covered a lot of territory. Obama and Romney sparred over taxes, oil subsidies, Dodd-Frank, Medicare, education, Solyndra, Social Security, and how much they lurve the middle class.
Given all the unfettered candidate talking points and potpourri of disconnected issues, you’d think someone would have uttered the word “women.” But, alas, it went unsaid. In an election cycle where women’s hearts and votes are being fiercely battled over while our rights and needs are getting hammered by Republican vote after Republican vote, you’d think we might come up once. Nope.
There were a few allusions to some of the issues facing women today. Both Romney and Obama agreed on the importance of teachers, yet Obama was the only one to discuss a concrete plan to hire 100,000 of them. Romney, on the other hand, reupped his feelings that we need fewer government employees. This despite the fact that we’ve lost 670,000 government workers since the recession ended in June 2009.
And while Romney may not make the connection, many of those public sector workers are women—as are the vast majority of teachers. We’ve lost 301,000 jobs in “local government education” in the recovery—read elementary school teachers. This is a huge clue to the reason that women have been failing to catch up in job gains during the recovery. Women have lost 450,000 public sector jobs during the recovery, which has offset the private sector gains they made by 45 percent. When Obama talks about putting teachers back to work, or Romney discusses his penchant for thinning the government ranks through attrition, they’re both talking about women, even if they shied away from making that explicit.
When talking about the social safety net, Obama also invoked women through his grandmother, who he described as “fiercely independent.” She outlived her husband by many years but was able to live on her own “because of Social Security and Medicare,” Obama said. He illustrated an important point: women rely heavily on these programs when they age because they live longer, make less over their lives and therefore are more likely to end up in poverty—twice as many women over the age of 65 live in poverty as compared to men. Social Security is basically the only source of income for about a third of women over the age of 65, compared to less than a quarter of men. Without it, half of female beneficiaries would live in poverty. Same story with Medicare: the majority of beneficiaries are women.
But what of the other issues that have become hot battlegrounds in this election season that directly impact women? Romney talked up his plan to overturn the Affordable Care Act as fast as he can. That includes the mandate that insurance cover contraception as a preventative care service without a co-pay, a provision that Ryan has said his team would undo on “day one.” That means women will go back to shelling out nearly $12,000 over their lifetimes for hormonal birth control. But the ACA also undoes gender rating, saving women $1 billion a year in paying more for the same services. Obama could have easily brought up either to demonstrate how anti-woman the pledge to repeal the ACA really is.
He could have also mentioned the first bill he signed into law, the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which Romney has struggled with. Remember that awkward five-second silence when his advisers were asked whether Romney supports the bill? And how Paul Ryan voted against it when it came to the House floor? That’s an easy way to draw a distinction between himself and the GOP ticket: Obama supports measures to help close the gender wage gap. Romney/Ryan may talk about women in the economy, but have no plans to ensure women make the same as their male peers.
“Women’s issues” often get lumped into “social issues” and then sidelined as not being “core issues” like the deficit or jobs. Perhaps that’s why Lehrer didn’t see fit to interrupt the candidates with questions about women. It could even explain why Obama failed to make any mention of them last night. But issues like contraception, abortion and equality have huge economic ramifications in women’s lives. They should have had their place in a discussion of the economy last night.
For more on last night's debate, read Ben Adler on how each campaign team will spin the event.