Monday, April 16, 2012 | 2 a.m.
The Draperizing of Mitt Romney is under way.
He may not drink or cheat, and he lacks the fictional ad-maker’s charisma, but Democrats, despite the potential perils of such a strategy, remain determined to paint Romney as a throwback to the “Mad Men” era — a hopelessly retro figure who, on policy and in his personal life, is living in the past.
President Barack Obama has noted the presumptive GOP nominee uses archaic turns of phrase such as “marvelous” and warned in an email to donors Thursday that his rival would usher in “a social agenda from the 1950s.”
The president’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, has gone further, quipping that the former Massachusetts governor “must watch ‘Mad Men’ and think it’s the evening news” while jabbing that Romney’s views are out of a time when “bosses could dictate on women’s health.”
Democrats unaffiliated with Obama’s campaign are upping the ante, raising questions about just how much a stay-at-home mother like Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann, can relate to modern women — an explosive argument that came back to singe the president’s team in recent days.
Even a Romney ally and prospective vice presidential choice, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, managed to underscore the Democratic line of attack at a meeting with about two dozen editors and reporters in New York last week, saying: “He reminds me of a lot of people I grew up with, a lot of people I know, who have that Midwest earnestness. He’s kind of a throwback to the ’50s”
As it relates to the role of women’s rights and role in the 21st-century home, placing Romney in the wayback machine is a promising line of attack at a time when he is frantically trying to overcome a massive gender gap.
But the attempt to do the political equivalent of a Turner Classic in reverse — turn a candidate’s color biography back to black-and-white — also carries significant risk. Democrats were reminded of the tricky calibrations of gender politics Wednesday night when a veteran party insider argued that Romney ought not to get his advice about what women are concerned about from a wife who has “never worked a day in her life.”
Hilary Rosen’s comments were prompted by a Romney speech to the Associated Press, in which he addressed a question about the gender gap he’s facing by referring to his wife — and saying she “reports to me regularly that the issue women care about most is the economy and getting good jobs for their kids and for themselves.”
Rosen’s provocation about Ann Romney, a homemaker who helped raise five boys, prompted swift denunciations from Obama’s high command and a furious round of pushback from Team Romney — and head-shaking in private from a range of Democrats who said the episode was a reminder that any attempts to criticize a candidate’s spouse is fraught with peril.
Obama himself was forced to address the Rosen comments with an Ohio television station.
“First of all, there is no tougher job than being a mom,” Obama said. “I’ve watched Michelle, who for most of her career had juggled work and family. But there were times she was on maternity leave, and I promise you that’s work. That was an ill-advised statement by somebody on television.”
“There’s no such thing as a mom who’s not a working mom, so this was an unfortunate incident,” said Virginia Del. Barbara Comstock, a longtime Romney backer. “But it highlights some of the division that we’ve been seeing from the Obama campaign because they don’t want to talk about the fact that the Obama economy isn’t working for women.”
Romney aides echo similar themes in their verbal smackdown of the larger “Don Draper” strategy.
“It’s no surprise, with the worst job creation record in modern history, that President Obama doesn’t want to talk about it. The Obama campaign planned to run on his record and, when that proved futile, they moved to their ‘kill Mitt’ strategy,” campaign spokesman Andrea Saul said. “We’re under no illusions about their intent to smear Mitt Romney to avoid talking about the real issues, and we understand they will do or say anything in an attempt to tear him down.”
Yet, while the Rosen comments may cause Democrats short-term discomfort, some in the party are happy to have a longer conversation on the topic. While none would say so publicly, a number are glad to have such an explosive subject introduced, believing that Romney’s views on reproductive rights and pay equity can be reinforced by reminding female voters where the GOP hopeful is getting his counsel.
Even before the Rosen flap, some prominent activists argued that there are limits to Ann Romney’s ability to appeal to women — despite her acknowledged strengths as a surrogate — based on a potential lack of common experiences.
“I simply have not seen her in any way as an advocate for women’s empowerment in society,” Kim Gandy, the former head of the National Organization for Women, said of Ann Romney before Rosen’s comments. “And since Gov. Romney looks to her to find out what women care about, that does not bode well. I haven’t heard her speaking out about increasing women’s opportunity for higher paid employment, for women in non-traditional occupations, specifically for increasing pay equity for women, closing the pay gap, certainly not on women’s reproductive rights.”
Privately, senior Democrats are even more candid — predicting that the relitigating of the Mommy Wars against the backdrop of a larger Retro Mitt campaign is not a battle that any Republican, and especially not this one, can win.
“She doesn’t connect in any ways with the women that he has a problem with,” a Democratic strategist aligned with Obama said of Ann Romney, alluding to the GOP hopeful’s polling deficit with younger, college-educated women. “She’s as foreign to them as he is. That’s not to disparage anybody who stays home and raises kids. But she’s just not like them.”
A second Democratic strategist acknowledged that the Rosen flap was “messy today” but added: “They’re not going to win on this issue.”
To be fair, Romney’s governmental record, as well as his campaign, generally reflect gender inclusion. His gubernatorial chief of staff and campaign senior adviser, Beth Myers, is female, as are his deputy campaign manager and communications director.
In 2003, Romney’s first year as governor, Massachusetts ranked number one among all states for the highest ratio of women policy leaders appointed by governors, according to a 2004 study by the Center for Women in Government and Civil Society. The suggestion that Romney’s world is cloistered from women is not a fair one.
Where Democrats see an opening is in his language about women — the line about his wife “reporting” to him about the concerns of women — and in whether the “out of touch” label can be expanded to his wife.
What Democrats won’t say, even under the cloak of anonymity, is that the highly charged discussion of Romney and gender opens the door to an even more combustible topic: the candidate’s membership in a church that encourages women to stay at home and handle child-rearing.
Obama and his advisers will never overtly go there, of course.
But in appealing to the female vote, the president has held out his own family’s experience of trying to juggle dual careers with child-rearing — an implicit contrast with his GOP rival.
“We didn’t have the luxury for her not to work,” Obama said recently at a White House forum on women in the workplace, noting that Michelle Obama “gave it her all to balance raising a family and pursuing a career.”
Liberal critics will also attack Romney’s stance on issues important to women — not just his ability to relate to modern families.
“For Mitt Romney to just, in a completely offhand way, say we’re going to get rid of Planned Parenthood as if we could as a country — it’s like it’s coming out of another era,” said Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, alluding to Romney’s March comment that he intended to strip the organization of its federal funding.
Obamaworld makes the case that Romney is out of step not just on such cultural matters but on an array of issues.
“On social, economic and foreign policy, he wants to roll back the clock,” said Obama Deputy Campaign Manager Stephanie Cutter, noting Romney’s stance on women’s health care, taxes and his Cold War-like rhetoric toward Russia. “He’s laying out a vision of where the country has been — not where it’s going.”
By using such language, Democrats hope to undercut one of Romney’s own favorite message points.
“It undercuts Romney’s whole line of attack — every time he says ‘roll back, repeal, overturn,’ he’s also reinforcing their argument against him, and they can say, ‘There he goes again. It’s all about going backward,’” said veteran Democratic strategist Jonathan Prince. “And it reinforces the best message of Barack Obama — that he’s future-oriented, aspirational and a symbol of progress.”
But it gets more delicate. As one Obama adviser said, “Everything, from the positions to the personal, is about going backward.”
Neera Tanden, president of the liberal Center for American Progress, didn’t discuss Ann Romney but did point to “the personal” of the last two Democratic presidents — habits of elevating their wives on the stump in ways that made clear they were partners.
“The success of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama is that they celebrated the fact that their wives were equal to them and that they had strong careers beforehand, which was a message to a lot of women that they would treat women as equals,” Tanden said. (Clinton and Obama) didn’t just tolerate or acknowledge, but they literally celebrated the facts that their wives were equal in the household and the work sphere.”
By Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman