I’m sitting in what I’m told is one of Long Island’s famous diners, digesting breakfast and the second presidential debate. It’s always so hard in the first 24 hours to predict how it will play, whether my instincts and observations will be in line with the consensus formed by the American public.
I have a bit of an advantage. I’m a woman, the most highly-coveted demographic for the candidates. We all bring our own filter to these kinds of events. As a white woman who grew up in the American Midwest, I have a kind of built-in perspective.
With that in mind, my first instinct is that Governor Mitt Romney came off as really rude.
In this country, we are taught from a very young age to respect the office of the presidency, even if we don’t like the man (or perhaps one day, woman) occupying it. I couldn’t help but think Romney missed that day in social studies class.
At one point, he raised his hand to President Barack Obama and basically told him, “Wait your turn”. He did it in such a way that made the debate audience literally gasp.
I’m not suggesting that one gesture or attitude in and of itself will cost Romney votes, but it may suggest something about his character to prospective voters. In this country, people vote – not just for policies – but the person.
But I believe the bigger consequence of the debate for Romney will be a comment he made about hiring women. W
hen he was forming his cabinet in Massachusetts, his staff brought him resumes and they were all men, he said. In response, Romney insisted they also find qualified female candidates. And his staff returned with what he described as “binders full of women”.
Of course, that is the sound bite most in the US media will be focusing on, simply because it just sounds funny. (It’s also becoming the hottest political name on the internet).
The more important point is what Romney said next. He talked about his chief of staff, a woman and a mother of young children, who said she couldn’t work late because she needed to be home to make dinner for her kids.
Romney then says he agreed that women shouldn’t have to work late. Perhaps he thought it made him sound compassionate and understanding, but it seemed to me quite insulting, and a potential setback for women’s rights in this country.
Generations of women before me have worked very hard in order to have the right to work in powerful positions in government. Romney didn’t say anything about letting the fathers of young children go home early.
There is a discussion to be had in this country about changing our society so that parents – both male and female – can work and raise healthy, happy children at the same time.
That wasn’t what was being talked about. It appeared to send the message to employers everywhere that if you hire a mother, you’ll have to make concessions.
There is something else I should tell you about my “filter”.
Full disclosure: I am a feminist. It’s become a dirty word of sorts for the younger generation, complicated by spin, conjuring up images of women who hate men and make-up. To me, feminism simply means that women deserve equal pay for equal work. It’s the equal work part that the governor seemed to be implying women with children couldn’t achieve.
Romney has been gaining ground with women voters in the polls. If my instincts are right, and of course they may not be, his comments on this could cost him.
Most people don’t realise this, but it has been 20 years since a woman moderated a presidential debate in this country.
I won’t get into what it says that the debate commission gave Candy Crowley the one debate where the rules said she wasn’t allowed to ask questions.
She didn’t follow the rules and I commend her for that.
The credit though goes to a teenage girl who started an online petition to get a female moderator. I can’t help but wonder what that young activist would say about Romney’s comments.