WASHINGTON – There were a couple of problems right off the bat when would-be Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina and the top Republican woman in the House, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, sat down with conservative interest groups to refute the notion that the GOP is waging a “war on women.”
First, there was the name of the gathering Monday in the Capitol complex, “War No More,” which implicitly acknowledged that there has been a war on women, as Democrats allege.
Then there was the matter of the emcee, Penny Young Nance, the chief executive of Concerned Women for America. On Fox News last month, she criticized the children’s movie “Frozen,” of all things, for making men seem useless. She said the animated film – which features princesses and a singing snowman named Olaf – empowered women at “the cost of tearing down men” and argued that boys should be taught that “we want to raise heroes. We want to raise real men.”
Next there was the question of timing. Earlier this year, House Republicans caused an uproar when, in one of the first acts of the new Congress, they attempted to pass an anti-abortion bill that would grant exceptions to a rape victim only if she reported the assault to police. Republican women rebelled, and GOP leaders pulled the bill. In the weeks since then, Republican officeholders across the land have been demonstrating that if there isn’t a Republican war on women, there are a lot of loose cannons.
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To combat the war-on-women meme, the conservatives brought out some big guns: Their “War No More” backdrop was a poster of the famous photo of female World War II aviators in front of a B-17. But the conservatives lacked a consensus battle plan.
Nance, the moderator, speculated that the Democrats’ war-on-women allegations from 2012 and 2014 would return. “If we actually do in 2016 see the top of the Democratic ticket as Claire Underwood, I mean Hillary Clinton – I keep getting those two mixed up – I think this is going to be back,” Nance said, referring to the fictional “House of Cards” first lady.
McMorris Rodgers, whose name card spelled her name “Rogers,” chuckled at the Underwood-Clinton joke.
Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum, said she’s concerned that the war-on-women charge “still will resonate” because “the right simply doesn’t take gender differences seriously enough.”
But pollster Kellyanne Conway argued that “the war on women died in 2014.” She attributed the problem to “some over-the-top comments by a couple of Republicans running for Senate” in 2012.
Alas for the GOP, the gender gap preceded Senate candidate Todd Akin, and the comments have continued since then: the Idaho legislator who asked last month whether a gynecological exam on a woman could be conducted by having her swallow a camera; the New Hampshire legislator who said a Democratic congresswoman would lose because she’s “ugly as sin”; another New Hampshire legislator who argued that men make more than women because “they don’t mind working nights and weekends” or “overtime or outdoors”; the Arizona GOP official who said women on Medicaid should be sterilized; and the New Mexico congressman who endorsed this biblical view: “The wife is to voluntarily submit, just as the husband is to lovingly lead and sacrifice.”
At the same time, Republicans have taken up hundreds of bills in state legislatures restricting abortion, and Democrats have sought to highlight Republican opposition in Congress to the Violence Against Women Act, the Paycheck Fairness Act and other bills.
So how to disarm the war-on-women allegation?
Conway suggested Republicans go beyond “waist-down” issues to talk to women about security and health care. And she said that women “really enjoy humor.” For example: her quip that she could work on a Republican presidential campaign, even though she has four kids, because “I don’t have a boyfriend.”
Fiorina, by contrast, said that what women need is an end to seniority-based pay. “Feminism means we will have arrived when every woman has the opportunity to choose her own life, whether she chooses to home-school her kids or be a CEO or anything in between,” the former tech executive said.
McMorris Rodgers, for her part, said the answer was “to be reminded of the greatness that Ronald Reagan had us believe in America, each one of us, and I think that has to be our message.”
That probably won’t end the war – but it beats complaining about “Frozen.”
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.