Women and the men who yell
Maybe someday, the voters of 2012 will be telling their grandchildren where they were when Mitt Romney evoked Women in Binders.
By then, of course, they will have gotten a little fuzzy about the details. Maybe they’ll tell the kids that, in the end, the whole election came down to the time Mitt Romney put Big Bird in a binder on the car roof.
President Barack Obama has had his ups and downs in this campaign, but Romney has a near-monopoly on interesting imagery. His most famous moment in Tuesday’s debate came when he recounted how, when he came into office as governor, he was upset that all the applicants for top jobs were men.
“I went to a number of women’s groups ... and I brought us whole binders full of women,” he recounted proudly.
It was the anecdote that launched a thousand quips. Riffing on “Dirty Dancing,” tweeters announced: “Nobody puts Baby in a binder.”
Later, it turned out that the binders in question had actually been submitted to Romney by a Massachusetts group that had been formed to push for more women in important state government posts. Still, it was admirable that Romney followed through.
At least for the first few years of his administration. The Boston Globe reported that by the time he left office, the proportion of women at the top had dwindled to below the level he found when he arrived.
(When it comes to the ever-evolving identity of Mitt Romney, we tend to think of Massachusetts Mitt as the progressive, empathetic version. But there were actually several Bay State incarnations. The one who got elected governor wanted to ban assault rifles and close down polluting power plants and had emotional memories of a relative who died from an illegal abortion. About halfway through the term, that guy began to evaporate. He was replaced by a Presidential Prospect Mitt who opposed stem cell research, refused to cooperate with other governors on clean air initiatives and lost interest in the binder.)
But about the debate. You may have noticed that both candidates tried to score points with women. Obama pointed out that the first bill he signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and that he’d fought to make sure all health insurance policies included coverage for contraception. Romney suggested there were “bureaucrats in Washington” who wanted to tell women whether they can use birth control, and he fiercely announced that if they tried, he would be very much opposed.
Women enjoy a good pander as much as anybody else, and it was great to have the candidates tackle issues like equal pay and reproductive rights. Although it was a little weird that the two men vied for female favor by interrupting and barking at one another like a Worst Boyfriend.
If there are significant voter gender differences, one of them is the female aversion to yelling and squabbling. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but the president’s best moment of the debate was delivered on a stage set the day before by his highest-ranking female Cabinet member.
The subject was Libya. The Romney camp has continually — and appallingly — tried to politicize the tragedy in Benghazi. But the administration’s position on what had led to the attack that killed four Americans has been garbled. Its various explanations for why security wasn’t better have sounded defensive.
On Monday, in an interview with CNN, Hillary Clinton simply said that she was responsible, as the secretary of state, for whatever had happened. Then during the debate Tuesday, the president picked up, and improved upon, the message. The administration, he said, was “going to find out exactly what happened, everybody will be held accountable, and I am ultimately responsible for what’s taking place there. Because these are my folks, and I’m the one who has to greet those coffins when they come home, you know that I mean what I say.”
The virtues of saying “the buck stops here” are so obvious that it’s a wonder there isn’t more of it. On Tuesday, Obama was definitely staking his claim on the buck.
“Secretary Clinton has done an extraordinary job. But she works for me. I’m the president. And I’m always responsible,” he said.
Americans have a fairly high tolerance for political fights about who’s to blame for our problems. But when it comes to national security, we expect clarity and sobriety. To a man or woman. The president hit just the right note.
Meanwhile, Clinton was flying back from Peru, trying to get home in time to watch the debate. On the plane, she brushed aside any invitations to expand on her statement or comment on critiques from the Romney camp.
“I don’t want to go there,” she said. “Let’s just everybody take a deep breath — figure out what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it.”
Nobody puts Baby in a binder.
Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.