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When Hilary Rosen said that Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life,” she was trying to say that Ann Romney’s great wealth makes it hard for her to identify with women who must work for a living. But unfortunately, Rosen grabbed the first and most obvious cliché to blurt that idea out. “Never worked a day in her life” is such an inherently aggressive, formulaic insult that it guarantees an equally aggressive, formulaic response. Them’s not just fightin’ words, them’s media bait.

Not that the Republicans wouldn’t have tried to create a phony controversy had Rosen (or any Dem) issued a milder, less pointed remark—like, say, “Ann Romney doesn’t work or struggle, so she can’t really understand women who do.” Even such a prosaic comment could have set off a torrent of ginned-up outrage, because (1) manufacturing outrage is how the right is bringing manufacturing back to America, (2) Rosen directed her insult at a candidate’s spouse, always a risky gambit, and, most important, (3) the supposed bad blood between working women and “stay-at-home moms” (a loaded phrase itself, implying both contentment and immobility) is so pathetically easy to stir up.

Yes, women in one group may resent or envy those in the other group, but it’s essentially a dying and phony feud. These two “groups” constantly overlap, especially now as more women are forced to stay home because they can’t find a job or want to stay home but must work, not to mention every possible permutation in between.

But the phrase “never worked a day in her life” is just the sort of poke in the eye sure to resurrect old frustrations and resentments. The very structure of “never did blank a day in her life” is provocative. Never is a broad, sweeping assertion and already extreme; a day in her life narrows it right down to a specific individual, one person not doing (through luck or choice) something that most people do at least on occasion (exercised, been sick, or whatever). Rosen’s words all but dare you to prove her wrong, to find the exceptions to “never.” And when fraught verbs like worked, worked with his hands or set foot in church fill the blank, the phrase immediately sets up an Us vs. Them contrast, getting people to pick a side and lock themselves in. As Republican consultant Matthew Dowd said this morning of Rosen’s comment, “It’s the best thing to unify the Republicans behind Mitt Romney.”

Word that the DNC will no longer pursue the “Republican war on woman” line comes right as this kerfuffle reaches its peak. Do professional Dems believe that Rosen’s misstep lends credence to Mitt Romney’s absurd claim that Obama’s the one waging the war? That would certainly follow the pattern of the Democrats backing down just when they’re ahead.

Come on, guys, have the courage of your own convictions. Unlike the stereotype that Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life,” the Republican war on women is real.