If Mitt Romney and Republicans played up their feminine side last week in Tampa, Democrats on Tuesday were utterly and unabashedly feminist.
The opening night of the Democratic National Convention was a hard-edged appeal to female voters. Every poll-tested line of every speech and life story seemed geared to college-educated and suburban women, a group of Democratic-leaning swing votes. President Obama needs to run up his margins among these women to offset Romney’s advantage with white men.
A week ago, Romney’s team staged a warm-and-fuzzy appeal to women, a sentimental night filled with testimonials by the likes of first lady hopeful Ann Romney. Obama’s team hit harder: Speaker after speaker challenged Republicans on birth control, abortion, education, fair pay, and other wedge issues aimed at women.
“Put simply, women in America cannot trust Mitt Romney,” said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
The bluntest appeals came in the night’s first five hours, which were broadcast on cable television only. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released during the early proceedings suggests that Obama’s favorability rating among women has dropped 11 points since April to 46, its lowest level since he took office.
Into this environment strode Michelle Obama and keynote speaker Julian Castro, mayor of San Antonio, whose speeches were televised by the major networks as well as cable.
Obama sought craftily to connect with women by finding common ground: “Like any mother,” she worried about moving her children (from Chicago to the White House) for a new job. Like any “exhausted mom,” date night is either a dinner or a movie because she can’t stay awake for both. Like any wife, “I love my husband even more than I did four years ago.” Cue the “Aawwwwws.”
Like Ann Romney a week ago, the first lady tried to humanize her aloof husband. As a young man, he drove a rusted-out car, decorated his place with a coffee table from a Dumpster, and sported too-small shoes. “And as I got to know Barack,” she said in a heartfelt address whose delivery transcended the prepared remarks, “I realized that even though he’d grown up all the way across the country, he’d been brought up just like me.”
In other words, ladies, he grew up just like you.
In a mild departure from the traditional role of first ladies, Michelle Obama singled out policy accomplishments: fair pay for women, the auto-industry bailout, health care reform, and efforts to revive the economy.
She cast them as family-friendly initiatives and then waded deep into the polarizing reproductive-rights debate.
The president “believes that women are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies and our health care,” the first lady said. “That’s what my husband stands for.”
Castro, the keynote speaker, spoke lovingly about his mother and grandmother before slapping Romney with the ultimate insult: “Mitt Romney, quite simply, doesn’t get it.” He suggested the adage applies—what’s best for the middle class in general and for women’s issues in particular.
“When it comes to respecting women’s rights, Mitt Romney says, ‘No.’ When it comes to letting people marry whomever they love, Mitt Romney says, ‘No.’ When it comes to expanding access to good health care, Mitt Romney says, ‘No.’ ”
Obama addresses the convention on Thursday night, but he appeared via videos on Tuesday, touting himself as a champion of women’s rights. In one, he bragged about signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that lowered barriers to equal pay for women and men.
The act’s namesake reminded the crowd that women still earn just 77 cents for every dollar men make. “Those pennies add up to real money,” Ledbetter said. “Maybe 23 cents doesn’t sound like a lot to someone with a Swiss bank account, Cayman Island investments, and an IRA worth tens of millions of dollars. But, Governor Romney, when we lose 23 cents every hour, every day, every paycheck, every job, over our entire lives—what we lose can’t just be measured in dollars.” (The speech, with echoes of the 20th-century women’s rights movement, might have served Obama better had it played in prime time.)
Another stirring moment: Iraq war hero Tammy Duckworth, a former helicopter pilot who lost both legs in combat, walked on stage with a cane to praise Obama. “Last week, Mitt Romney had a chance to show his support for the brave men and women he is seeking to command,” she said. “But he chose to criticize President Obama instead of even uttering the word ‘Afghanistan.’ ”
Nancy Pelosi, who as a former House speaker got as close as any woman to the presidency, brought to the convention stage a bevy of female Democratic lawmakers. One of them, Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, said that her GOP colleagues conducted a hearing on birth control “and refused to include a single woman on the first panel as a witness. I asked, ‘Where are the women?’ ”
“Where are the women?” she repeated for the roaring crowd. “The women are here!”
Indeed, at times, it seemed like the women were everywhere—and everything to the Obama campaign.
This article appears in the September 5, 2012, edition of NJ Convention Daily.