The ‘woman problem’ Cathy McMorris Rodgers can’€t solve

Republicans are dismally out of step with what matters to female voters

January 29, 2014 11:30AM ET
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., during a rehearsal of the Republican response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address.
Joshua Roberts/Reuters

“Relatable” is the word that comes to mind with Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash. Though she holds the No. 4 position in the Republican House leadership, her image is all everywoman. Whether she’s sitting on a couch responding to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address or narrating the story of her classic American life in an upbeat video, she comes across as a warm and personable next-door neighbor who always has the coffee on and the time to listen. She was arguably the best person that Republicans could have presented to counter Obama.

By choosing McMorris Rodgers as its official responder, rather than tapping one of the many men with designs on the White House, the GOP distanced itself from its recent SOTU flameouts. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was panned for being simplistic and singsongy in 2009, and last year Florida Sen. Marco Rubio made that unforgettable lunge for a water bottle. Bob McDonnell was a newly elected Virginia governor with a national future when he gave the response in 2010. Now he’s an ex-governor charged with corruption.

In her response Tuesday night, McMorris Rodgers, 44, embodied the essence of hearth and home: she even sat next to an actual fireplace. She wove her life story into her nationally broadcast talk, referring to her tiny hometown of Kettle Falls, Wash., and her childhood raising animals and pitching in at the family orchard and fruit stand. She recalled her teen years cleaning motel rooms, selling burgers at the McDonald’s drive-through window, and becoming the first in her family to graduate from college. She also talked about marrying “my Mr. Wonderful” at age 37, and bearing three children while in Congress, including a son with Down syndrome and a daughter born “just eight weeks ago.” She served as an antidote not just to the ambitious multitudes but also to the parade of Republican men who seem tone-deaf when it comes to women.

Her success showed that Republicans can communicate effectively with women and would do well to promote McMorris Rodgers — perhaps even someday to House speaker. At the same time, however, the McMorris Rodgers moment was a reminder that Republican problems with women run far deeper than the performance of any one messenger.   

Out of step

Poll after poll shows that conservatives’ positions are out of step not just with the views of ordinary Americans but with those of women in particular. Two pillars of Obama’s State of the Union speech highlighted this divide. Three-quarters of women favor raising the minimum wage, compared with about two-thirds of men, according to breakdowns of recent polls by Pew and Quinnipiac. As for extending unemployment insurance for the long-term jobless, Pew found women in favor 68 to 28 percent, while male support was in the mid-50s.

There’s also a substantial gender gap on gun control. Six out of 10 women, but only 39 percent of men, said they favored stricter gun control when polled by CNN last November. And after an expanded background-checks bill failed in the Senate last year, women told Gallup  they had wanted it to pass by 3 to 1 (69 to 23 percent), according to Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport; for men the ratio was a less lopsided 61 to 36 percent.

Notable differences exist as well in the area of social services. For instance, in a Pew/USA Today poll this month, asked whether it was more important to cut the budget deficit or keep Social Security and Medicare benefits as they are, 75 percent of women chose the latter, versus 17 percent who said it was more important to cut the deficit. That compares with 63 percent of men who wanted to preserve benefits and 29 percent who said deficit reduction was more important. Women are also more likely than men to support expansion of the Medicaid program for poor and low-income Americans, as well as gay marriage and comprehensive immigration reform, and to say that social issues like supporting abortion rights will be important in their vote for Congress this year.

Obama, who won women’s votes by 11 points over Mitt Romney in the 2012 election, spoke of many of these policies in his address to Congress. One of his best lines came after he lamented that women still don’t earn equal pay for equal work and are penalized for pregnancies and sick children. “It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a ‘Mad Men’ episode,” he said.

GOP politicians have run the gamut from reluctant to resistant to outright “hell, no” rejectionist on these issues. Most of them also opposed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, signed by Obama exactly five years ago to make it easier for women to sue for equal pay. It’s no wonder that Republicans trail badly on questions like which party is better at “showing compassion and concern for people,” as one poll put it, or that women see the GOP moving away from their views rather than toward them.

McMorris Rodgers asserted Tuesday night that Republicans stand for “an America that is every bit as compassionate as it is exceptional.” She invoked a party “that dreams big for everyone and turns its back on no one.” But until the GOP lives up to that kind of rhetoric with actual policies, even a messenger as appealing — and, yes, relatable —­ as a three-time mom who raised sheep, sold fruit and cleaned motel rooms as a kid can’t do much to end the gender gap that’s holding back her party.

Jill Lawrence, the author of the Brookings Institution’s Profiles in Negotiation series, is a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor and a member of USA Today’s board of contributors.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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