Women are the key to the presidential debate and election

In round two of the presidential debates, Biden might have done a better job than Obama of exposing the salesmanship of the Romney-Ryan campaign, but he did little to regain lost ground with respect to women voters.

Ruth Rosen
12 October 2012

Well before the vice-presidential debate began, even the president had agreed that he had failed to expose Mitt Romney’s lies and had allowed his opponent to present himself as a supporter of universal health insurance, Social Security and Medicare, none of which is true.  

Equally important, in my view, is that Obama failed to mention some of his major accomplishments, many of which affected women. Obama began the first debate with an 18% lead among women voters. As Joe Biden steps into the ring, Obama has lost most of that advantage. The greatest shift occurred in the Pew’s national poll which now shows Romney and Obama polling equally among women. According to this respectable poll, Romney had moved from an 8-point deficit among all respondents to a 4-point lead.

Is this the result of forgetting to even mention women in the first debate?

In this second debate, Joe Biden needed to attack Romney and Ryan’s lies by forcefully demonstrating, in his avuncular jovial manner, how Medicare vouchers, cuts in Medicaid, and privatizing Social Security would hurt America's women and their children. He needed to hold up Paul Ryan’s infamous budget and look directly into the camera and speak to the women Obama lost last week. Point by point, he needed to remind American women that Obama-- not Romney--created Obamacare, supported the right of women to make their own reproductive choices, promoted and signed legislation that provides equality between men and women at the work place, supported the children of immigrants, and sought fairer loans to college students. Biden did a terrific job of pointing out how Romney’s policies would harm people, but not women and children.

Holding up Paul Ryan’s budget, Biden needed to say it loud and clear—that the Romney team will cuts benefits for the poor, even as they provide corporate welfare and cut the taxes of the wealthy. This he did, again and again.

This was the moment to call every misleading statement what it really is: a lie. Biden called it “malarkey” and made it clear that the Romney/Ryan campaign had rarely told the truth.

Ironically Congressman Paul Ryan had been dragging down the Republican candidacy precisely because he was viewed as too conservative. Presidential candidates usually choose someone who will, by virtue of geography, ethnicity, or popularity, ensure the campaign’s success. In 2008 and 2012, however, the Republican candidates, worried that the hard right-wing of the Tea Party and their followers would refuse to vote for a moderate Republican. So, they gave them Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan.

Big mistake. Sarah Palin appeared ridiculous and inexperienced. Paul Ryan, for his part, wrote a budget proposal to compete with the President’s budget plan. He therefore had a paper record of wanting to privatize Medicare and Social Security, both of which are vital to the elderly. He also had a written plan to turn both the food stamp program and Medicaid-- medical insurance for the poor-- into block state grant programs, which would create even deeper spending cuts over 10 years.

Ryan is also on record of wanting to cut taxes for the wealthy or, as he calls them, “the job creators.” He would reduce the corporate tax rate to 25 percent from 35 percent and release offshore profits from U.S. taxes. To make up the difference, he would reduce taxes on the wealthy and cut the above social programs. Since Mitt Romney “earns” millions of dollars from his investments, pays less taxes than most blue-collar workers and enjoys the pleasures of multiple homes, he, too, has seemed out of touch with most of the population that is plagued by fears of bankruptcy, layoffs, and educating their children.

For this debate, then, the goal of Paul Ryan was to pretend that he never embraced such draconian proposals against working families and the poor. That’s what Mitt Romney did during the first debate and, unfortunately, President Obama failed to stop him.

Biden’s role therefore was to come out swinging, convincing the audience that the Romney and Ryan campaign have run for 18 months saying one thing and now are lying at the national debates. This he did. Biden was far more aggressive than Ryan and refused to allow lies to pass as truth.

Given Biden’s well-known (somewhat exaggerated) working class background, it was inevitable that Joseph Biden would attack Paul Ryan for his indifference to the welfare of ordinary Americans. Since he has now become the weak link in the Republican campaign, Paul Ryan should have been on the ropes. Despite his good looks, youth, and buff appearance, however, the best Ryan could do was to deny his record and to attack the contemporary economic fragility of the economy, without acknowledging that it was Republican policies that created it in the first place.

On the stage were two different visions of the American Dream. For Biden, the government exists to create opportunities for its citizens, to assist the vulnerable and the disabled, and to prevent a depression, even if it means bailing out banks. For Biden, the American Dream was built on hard work, not on investments, and on people who have helped others to build better futures for their children.

For Ryan, a disciple of Ayn Rand, government is the problem, never part of the solution. In his view, individualism is what created American prosperity. His vision is clear: it is a society in which you go it alone. (Of course, you might have wealthy parents or powerful connections, but that doesn’t count.)  

Ryan conveniently forgot that the government subsidized the creation of the computer, built an interstate road system that crisscrosses the country, designed missiles that landed men on the moon, subsidized universities that are the envy of the rest of the world, and preserved some of the most gorgeous national parks on the globe.

Taxes allowed the federal government to do these miraculous things. Some things just can’t be done by an individual. That’s why there are police officers and fire fighters. If you listened to Paul Ryan tonight, however, you heard the rant of an individualist who has yet to realize that together we rise or fall.

Finally, Paul Ryan had been a serious liability for recruiting women voters. His record against abortion included no exemptions at all and was formally inserted into the Republican 2012 platform. Tonight he repudiated the Republican Party Platorm and said he supported exceptions. Yet he also conceded that a Romney/Ryan presidency would also be opposed to abortion. Ryan has also supported “personhood,” the belief that a fertilized egg is a human being, which would criminalize many forms of birth control. Although Romney’s more moderate stance of allowing abortion in the case of rape, incest or the health of the mother is supposed to dominate the campaign’s positions, hopefully women realized that Ryan had conveniently changed his mind. When the platform and the vice-presidential candidate speak so fiercely against women’s right to make their own reproductive choices, they see President Obama’s consistent support of women’s rights as symbolic of his entire attitude toward women. Even though these issues remained invisible throughout the first debate, Ryan’s views, one hopes, will once again strengthen women’s support for the president. But when will these politicians remember that women also care about wage equity, Social Security, the education of their children, Medicare, and health insurance?  

The Big Lie has worked for all kinds of politicians, including Hitler. Now the question is, will Joe Biden’s debating skills help viewers realize that Romney and Paul have repudiated everything they’ve stood for before the debate?

President Obama is right; they are engaged in salesmanship, not leadership.

This is the second of four articles by Ruth Rosen providing a gendered perspective on the US Presidential candidate debates. Read the first article US Presidential debate: who cares most about ordinary Americans?

Ruth's third article in this series will be published on October 17th


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