The GOP Is Playing Defense on Women's Issues ... Again

Tone deaf Republicans are giving Democrats a hand.

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Sandra Fluke, waves at a campaign event at the University of Colorado Auraria Events Center, Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012, in Aurora, Colo. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Sandra Fluke was a lesson in messaging for the GOP.

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As they did in 2012, the Democrats desperately need single women to go to the polls and vote in the upcoming national election.

Right now, as a poll conducted for National Public Radio by Resurgent Republic and the Democracy Corps showed last week, the 2014 electorate should skew white, married and older, which is typical of most recent off-year national elections. This would not favor the Democrats. Older voters, married people and white voters are conservative and, therefore, more likely to vote Republican.

With control of the U.S. Senate at stake (and perhaps even the U.S. House of Representatives, despite what many pundits have forecast) Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and their cronies are engaged in a no holds barred effort to change the composition of the electorate. That’s why Reid is bringing the so-called “Paycheck Fairness Act” up for a vote and why, heaven help them, the tone-deaf wing of the Republican Party is doing all it can to help him win a political victory.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

The main talking point – that women, on average, make 77 cents for every dollar earned by men – has been debunked on the left and the right. Even the White House admitted Monday that it wasn't exactly correct and might not apply in the situations covered under the proposed legislation. Nevertheless, the administration is going to use it anyway.

In response, Republicans and conservatives stumbled all over themselves to carefully explain why the number was wrong, how it involved comparisons of theoretical apples and oranges, how discrimination in pay based on gender was outlawed in 1963 and the like – all the while repeating over and over again the incorrect fact that “women in the American workforce are, on average, paid 77 cents for every dollar earned by men.”

Remember Sandra Fluke? On the surface, her assertions were silly. In the world of narrowcast political ads made possible by the growth of the Internet, however, the attacks on her and on what she said made a very significant number of women very, very mad indeed. By repeating the misinformation about what women in the labor force make relative to men, the GOP is helping Democrats energize the same portion of the electorate that went to the polls in 2012 thinking they were voting to stop the Republicans from taking birth control away from college age women.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.]

Like it or not, emotional issues cannot be fought on the merits of the arguments involved. People, voters, already have their minds made up and are only looking for information that reinforces what they already believe. Women who feel oppressed at work will latch on to the 77 cents statistic like gum in the hair of a small child. The way to win the argument which, per Margaret Thatcher, is what you have to do before you can win the election, is to offer alternatives and point out the inherent hypocrisy of those supporting the proposal.

What the GOP should be doing is offering alternatives like allowing women in the workplace to trade overtime pay for extra hours off. This would be a big winner among single moms, who often have to take unplanned leave in order to deal with an issue at home involving a child. The federal government currently prevents employers from offering workers a choice in the matter. The Republicans should fashion a mechanism to give it to them.

Another possibility is to point out the disparities that exist on Capitol Hill, where male staffers on average are paid more than women, even if they have the same job descriptions. This is especially true in the offices of Senate Democrats, at least according to reports that have appeared in Politico and other publications that cover Congress. Then there’s this nugget, which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Sean Hackbarth unearthed for the Chamber's blog on Tuesday:

A McClatchy review of White House salaries in January found that when the same calculations that produced the 77 cents was applied to the White House, the average female pay at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is less than the average male pay. When counted the same way that produced the 77-cent figure, the analysis found, women overall at the White House make 91 cents for every dollar men make. That’s an average salary of $84,082 for men and $76,516 for women.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

That the proposed legislation is bad policy is, by now, beside the point. The issue of equal pay has entered the political debate in a way that has most Republicans explaining and, as they say in politics, “when you are explaining, you are losing.” If the GOP expects to win a majority in both chambers of Congress this November, it needs to be ready to fight fire with fire rather than throw gasoline and lit matches on embers the Democrats have carefully stoked.