Wednesday, June 06, 2007

If the Democrats would only listen to them

Melinda Henneberger, former NYT reporter, former Newsweek contributing editor, regular contributor to Slate and political editor of The Huffington Post is the author of If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear. Here's an excerpt, courtesy of

White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia

March 28, 2003

The Girlfriend Gap

"What you've got to understand is that nobody ever asks us what we think."

I made the mistake of letting my seven-year-old twins watch President George W. Bush address the nation before we invaded Iraq, and they both burst into tears: Would Iraqi children die in the attacks? What about their moms? They were still upset -- and I was still annoyed at myself -- as I drove to West Virginia a few days later to meet up with my three closest friends from high school. The timing was not the best; there was snow in the forecast and "multiple terror attacks" predicted in the event of war. The threat level had just been jacked up again, so all of Washington was a little extra twitchy -- and we were not a real low-key bunch to begin with.

Now that Baghdad was in shock and awe, I was tempted to stick close, with my duct tape and bottled water at the ready. But this weekend had been planned for months, in part to celebrate the end of my treatment for breast cancer, and it was a big deal for the four of us. Pam, Kim, Cathy, and I have supported each other through first dates and divorce, teen pregnancy and infertility, good fortune and loss. We've dissected every relationship in our lives and lately listened together for the disquieting little scratch of mortality. In our forties, we still need to check in.

We grew up together in Mount Carmel, Illinois, population eight thousand, on a bluff overlooking the Wabash River. It's a pretty little farm town -- or was, before the Target moved in, wiped out Market Street, and then moved on, like a bad storm. They all still live around there, six hours south of Chicago, in an area so conservative it went for Alan Keyes over Barack Obama for the U.S. Senate in 2004. And though I'm over a day's drive away now, we try to meet up somewhere at least once a year -- sort of a Same Time Next Year for girlfriends -- to tell secrets, swill girlie drinks, laugh at ourselves, and thank God for one another. After thirty years of friendship, I would have said we knew just about everything there was to know about one another. But I would have been wrong, because until that weekend, politics had never really come up. When it did, we found that we were as divided as the rest of the country, over the war and more.

It all started when Kim suggested that we sing patriotic songs as we hiked along, in support of the troops -- and ended in a fairly astringent disagreement over whether weapons of mass destruction had been discovered in Iraq. "FOX News would have told us" if they had not been located, Kim was sure. But no such weapons had turned up yet, I insisted. She wanted to know where I got my news, and when I mentioned The New York Times, she laughed at what she dismissed as brand loyalty to my old employer. "You have your sources of information, and I have mine," she said.

I had just spent some time at the United Nations, working on a profile of Kofi Annan for Newsweek, and I had to say that nobody there seemed to think there were any WMDs to be found in Iraq; from the lowest-level functionary to the guys on the top floor, they were convinced that Iran and North Korea posed far more certain threats. But America was not about to let a bunch of wilting, Saddam-coddling diplomats tell us what was what, so telling my friends "Hey, I heard it at the UN!" was about like saying Harry Potter's house elf had come to me in a dream.

The last time any of us had quarreled like this had to have been in high school, when my friends decided I really ought to break up with my boyfriend if I had no intention of marrying him. They all did marry their teen sweethearts, the last of them at age nineteen, and had high school kids of their own by the time I made it down the aisle at thirty-three. As adults, the four of us had always respected one another's choices and taken one another's part. But now, over George W. Bush, we found ourselves taking umbrage and taking sides. Pam lined up with me, though a tad to my left; she couldn't quite bring herself to acknowledge Bush as our legitimately elected president, she said, and the other two blanched. "Are you a Democrat, Miss?" Cathy asked, calling me by my childhood nickname. There was something I had never heard before in her voice, though, and I doubted she liked it any more than I did. Was it possible that in all our hours of heavy talk, we'd never really gone there?

In Washington, political discussion is the preferred elevator music, and even children go around humming the tune. When my son, who was eight by then, learned early in 2004 that a relation of ours would be supporting neither John Kerry nor John Edwards in that year's presidential contest, he assumed this could mean only one thing, and was incredulous: "She likes Dennis Kucinich?" In '06, at the height of Plamegate, he burst into my room early one Saturday morning shouting, "Karl Rove has been indicted!" Then, after I snapped to consciousness: "Not really. Could you get up and make me breakfast?" My friends have alerted me to the fact that most of America does not live like this -- and wouldn't want to.

We survived the contretemps, of course, and retreated to our respective bubbles. In my suburban Maryland village of aggressive recyclers, a Bush-Cheney yard sign was the talk of the town in the fall of '04, and at my polling place, John Kerry received 76 percent of the vote. Back in Mount Carmel, the smattering of "other candidates, mostly" who turned out for a campaign speech by the Democratic Party's brightest star had a hard time hearing Obama, Pam reported, over the sound of workers putting up the carnival rides for Ag Products Days. And on Election Day, 70 percent of Wabash County went for Bush. Had Kerry won the White House, I would have said that proved we'd take back the last four years if we could -- that Americans do not condone torture as a tool of interrogation, or consider the Geneva Conventions even remotely "quaint." I would have said we know a mess when we see one. When he lost, however, I had nothing but questions: What did that outcome say about us? What did that result prove? For therapeutic as much as journalistic reasons, I really wanted to know.

True, I'd never met a single person thrilled beyond reason by Kerry's candidacy, including his own wife, whose underawed staff sometimes referred to him as "the husband." Yet until the very end of his timid campaign, I thought he had an even shot -- because Gore did win the popular vote, and I had a hard time imagining that too many Gore supporters would look back over the last four years and conclude that Bush sure had proved them wrong.

Some did, though. Both parties improved their turnout, and "Values Voters: Myth or Must-Have" became the favorite post-election chew toy of political analysts. Another factor in Bush's win went virtually unnoticed: a small but consequential shift among women voters, who have long preferred Democrats as more reluctant to make war and more willing to fund schools and social programs. Women still favored Kerry, but the gender gap narrowed to seven points from the ten-point advantage Gore had in 2000. And in a contest this close, it mattered. As the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University put it in a post-election report, "Despite the gender gap, President Bush succeeded in increasing his overall share of the women's vote this year... a major reason why he took the popular vote this time around." A look at exactly who defected made the slippage look a little more ominous; Kerry not only lost ground with blue-collar women, he did worse than Gore had with the college-educated women the party counts on. He lost support with every female demographic, in fact, except women under thirty. Black women still voted overwhelmingly for Kerry, but the margin there also narrowed, by four points. Of the total increase in Bush's support from women, "two thirds came from black women," says David Bositis, a senior policy analyst at the Joint Center for Economic and Political Studies. "The shift had the most to do with moral values, and this is something that the Republicans are using to win elections." For those defectors, what had changed? Were American women becoming more conservative?

We are not some monolith, of course, politically or in any other way, and campaign season efforts to appeal to us as such -- "W. Is for Women" was surely the most overt -- can seem patronizing. As the Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg says, with some irritation, "We're fifty-two percent, not a minority special interest group." Still, Kerry had made the bluntest, most straightforward appeal -- on pay equity, affordable health care, early childhood education and a Supreme Court dedicated to upholding Roe v. Wade. Yet we were not sufficiently won over. Why was that? The pat answer during the campaign was that "security moms" focusing on terror threats saw Bush as the better protector. But was that the case? What do women want from their president?

After George W. Bush was returned to the White House, I could not wait to ask them. And for answers, as usual, I turned first to my oldest friends. As 2008 approaches, the Democrats ought to be turning to them, too. They need to know how Kerry's pitch on fairness in the workplace could fail to resonate with Kim, despite the long years she put in as a secretary, making male bosses look good in a company that only recently began considering women for executive positions like the one she now holds. They need to understand how Cathy, a nurse who cares for the elderly and cites health care as her number one priority, could possibly blame the Democrats for "broken promises" on that issue -- even in the years they were in charge of nothing. Like Kim, she went with Bush, which made about as much sense to me as the fact that Pam and I -- Catholics who voted for Kerry without a twitch or a blink -- must have made to them. Clearly, I had a lot to learn.

Henneberger spent some time on the road with Barbara Radnofsky during her campaign for the US Senate; here's a shorter sample from the chapter entitled "In the Belly of the Bubba", where they visited with some women in Abilene:

But the biggest problem her party faces here, as Anna ( Martinez Vedro, the president of the Big Country chapter of the Texas Democratic Women) sees it, is that so many Hispanics "are just one issue, abortion, which means that on the local level, we need to do more work on the third part of 'safe, legal, and rare'. We've been neglecting the 'rare'." Bah, Jewell (Halford) says: "Everyone's against abortion until your thirteen-year-old comes up pregnant." Barbara Bachus thinks Democrats have gotten too intimidated to talk about social issues at all any more. "We're scared, and the far right has made us this way." Nooo, Anna answers. "Losing elections has made us this way." Barbara Bachus says what she is pining for is a candidate who "would get up there and tell us what they really feel" -- the true F-word for Democrats, who seem to have lost all confidence in themselves while trying to behave like slightly more reasonable Republicans. "They're good and decent, but they're frightened."

Henneberger will be the guest of Radnofsky Friday, June 8 to sign her book and also speaking at the River Oaks Area Democratic Women's "True Blue Texas Women" luncheon on Saturday June 9. She will appear just prior to the luncheon at the Heights Area Democratic Club's meeting at Chatter's Restaurant, 140 S. Heights Blvd, at 10 a.m.

RSVP to any of these by contacting Katie Floyd at or at 713-858-9391.

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