The candidates looked like characters from Mad Men. Black suits, white shirts, and Opposite Day rep ties—Romney in blue, Obama in Republican Red. The ladies channeled the same era, but showed some backbone. They wore fuschia. A “feminine” color with bite. The message: the men might be all mixed up, with Obama proclaiming his love for the Second Amendment and professing enthusiasm about coal and Big Oil, and Romney up in arms about the Migratory Bird Act, so you couldn’t tell who was the Democrat and who was the Republican at first. But the ladies, dressed in hot pink, were bringing it.
In retrospect, that color choice foreshadowed an important issue: the role women and the rights of women and the position of women would play in this debate and, perhaps, in the 2012 presidential race.
Typically, challengers get to look like Big Idea Guys in debates—they talk about what they would do and the philosophy underlying their proposed plan—while incumbents look like beleaguered, petty town supervisors defending their actions and explaining why the sanitation department didn’t plow Aunt Gert’s street. That's what happened in round one of the debates. But this time, Obama took back the reigns of the race in two rhetorical moments. First, he seized phallic privilege and “p
residential-ness” with his litany of “I said I would…and I did.” Get Osama bin Laden. Lower taxes for the middle class. End the war in Iraq.
But even more, he won a rhetorical and real battle when he dared to say words that Romney did not. When a young woman in the town hall audience asked the candidates to address gendered pay inequity—women still earn 72 cents on the dollar on average in our country, she reminded us—Romney responded, unfortunately for him and his party, with laughable generalities and a truly hilarious image. He said the best solution was to do what he had done as governor of Massachusetts—“find some women who are qualified” to serve in his cabinet from among “binders full of women.” When those women had child care issues, he explained, he simply offered them flexible hours so they could go home early.
It’s the thought that counts and the thought does not seem to sit well with many women. A casting director and mother of two flipped back the flippancy of the remark: “Where are there binders full of women? I need them for work.” A psychoanalyst who had observed Obama’s “calm aggression” and tamped down anger said, “Romney seemed disingenuous when he said that. What did it even mean?” Another woman, a reporter, told me of Romney’s binder comment, “It was like he was trying to court me or pick me up. What he said about women sounded like half truths with a sleazy agenda.” And a female lawyer who described the comments as “inauthentic and antiquated” said, “I don’t trust a vague story about something he did personally. Do you know how quickly a concession like flex time gets you taken off the partner track at a law firm?”
Whatever you think of Obama and whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, he scored a slam dunk here by being specific, clear and committal in his language. He linked women’s success in the workplace to larger issues—health care and child care. He dared speak the taboo word, “contraception” and also peppered his talk with words like “cervical cancer screening,” “mammogram,” and “child care.” Then, in a moment of rhetorical mastery, he suggested that “these are not just women’s issues. They are family issues and economic issues.”
By using specific words—even taboo ones—that signify “female” and that matter to women, Obama was able to position himself as informed and truly democratic. The Binder Blunder, on the other hand, is Romney’s to undo. Or wear, as a fuschia badge of shame, into the next debtate.