Republicans are real men. Democrats are gay. Bush is a resolute he-man who will keep us safe from terrorists; Kerry is a flip-flopper who wants to take a more “sensitive” approach to the war on terror and who, as Vice President Cheney sneered, seems to think “Al Qaeda will be impressed with our softer side.” Conservatives are not just tough, they’re compassionate, too; as for the Christian right, what Christian right? Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! That’s really all you need to know about the Republican National Convention.
OK, so they overdid it a bit. Crazy Zell Miller had forgotten to take his meds, Cheney looked like he wanted to strangle a cat, and maybe you had to be there to see the humor in those anti-Kerry gag Band-Aids printed with a purple heart. Still, you’ve got to hand it to the Republicans: The macho card was skillfully played. They had John McCain, the coolest guy in Congress–the only cool guy in Congress–upon whom every male reporter in America seems to have a major crush. They had obnoxious Arnold Schwarzenegger, America’s sweetheart. And don’t forget Rudy Giuliani. His speech was such a masterful blend of brio, sentimentality and New York edge, by the end I was practically ready to vote for Bush myself.
Through clever stage-managing and endless iteration of the discredited Saddam/Al Qaeda connection, the RNC managed to attach to the reckless and inept Bush presidency the qualities Americans admire in men–optimism, confidence, fun, resolve, determination, single-mindedness, strength, will, foresight. Kerry and the Dems were the opposite–pessimistic, weak, indecisive, effeminate Breck girls and girlie men. You’d think Kerry, not Bush, had been the cheerleader in prep school. In the contest between real men and girlie men, women don’t exist. The few female speakers were there to underline Bush’s heterosexual credentials: Elizabeth Dole said Bush would protect us from gay marriage; Laura, Barbara and the twins testified to his Dadness. And don’t forget Barney, the Scottish Terrier. Real men have dogs. Women–gays–Democrats–have cats.
You wouldn’t think so, though, if you’d watched the militaristic extravaganza that was the Democratic convention: the Swift Boat band of brothers, the saluting candidate “reporting for duty.” I cringed, I really did. It was such a blatant manipulation of imagery, so patronizing, such a kick in the teeth to the Democratic base. ¿Quién es más macho? Maybe they could just wrestle–or better yet, take a leaf from Zell Miller and have a duel. At this rate, we won’t have a woman President until the year 3000, and she’ll have to be a five-star general.
And what of those women voters both parties are supposedly so eager to woo? Bush has done so little for women–and so much against them–that Laura had to reach all the way to Afghanistan to find some women whose lives have arguably been bettered by her husband. Kerry’s positions on issues women care about are good, but you have to read about them on his website: He has yet to make a direct appeal for women’s votes. Martha Burk, the witty and vigorous head of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, tells me that during the primaries Kerry actually told a roomful of Women for Kerry that he didn’t want to single out female voters because that would be “pandering” to a special interest (“It caused a collective gasp”)–the very charge leveled at the Dems by the right-wing antifeminists of the Independent Women’s Forum. Since when are women–51 percent of the population–a special interest? Kerry, after all, has no problem appealing directly to veterans, to hunters, to NASCAR fans. What are those if not special interests? Why is it OK to sidle up to gun-owners but not to talk about your support for battered women?
Women who vote favor Democrats by a large margin–11 percent more women went for Gore than for Bush. Politicized liberal women can read the tea leaves; they know, for example, that Kerry’s pro-choice even if the word “abortion” was missing from his acceptance speech. The problem is the disengaged and disaffected women, especially single women, who say neither candidate speaks to their lives. Kerry needs to make the case; he needs to talk about the threat to legal abortion and access to birth control, because unless a woman is a repro-rights maven, she very likely thinks abortion will always be there–at least for herself. He needs to talk about pay equity, which polls consistently show is the number-one issue for women. With the wage gap between men and women actually widening–women made 75.5 cents on the male dollar in 2003, down from 76.6 in 2002–this issue is a campaign gift from God. Most minimum-wage earners are adult women–Kerry should be shouting from the rooftops for a living wage. Women rely disproportionately on Social Security, which Bush wants to privatize–another divine present for Kerry. Childcare is a great women’s issue–why don’t we hear more about Kerry’s plans for it? And couldn’t Kerry speak directly to single mothers, working women, working mothers–the large majority of women in this country–and acknowledge them as full participants in American life who deserve society’s blessing and help? Appearances by his wealthy wife and high-fashion daughters don’t say to ordinary single women, half of whom make $30,000 a year or less: Here’s a candidate who understands what you go through.
Not to worry, promises Ann Lewis of Women for Kerry, “We’ll have the best-organized get-out-the-vote drive for women ever.” Lewis is enthusiastic about projects like Just Ask a Woman, a report about how American women fared under Bush and what they stand to gain under Kerry, and Take Five, in which each woman takes responsibility for getting five unregistered women to the polls. Lewis points out that Kerry talks about education and healthcare, big issues for women, all the time–the media just don’t pick it up.
Why would they? What a candidate proposes to do in vital areas of government that affect women and kids–boring. Who looks more manly holding a rifle–now, that’s a campaign issue.*