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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Gender Bending

The “gender gap” is such an enduring factor in American politics that for a long time it became one of those things people don’t even bother to think about. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus; Men care about money and guns; women care about health care and education; Republicans are the Daddy Party, Democrats are the Mommy Party, bark bark woof woof.
That started to change after the 2002 elections, when analysts noted the gender gap had dramatically shrunk, with Democrats winning women by a slender 2 percent. Thence was born the legend of “security moms”–married women with kids whose voting priorities were profoundly altered by the trauma of 9/11.
After the 9/11-haunted and security-saturated Republican National Convention gave George W. Bush a much-improved showing among women in several polls, “security moms” quickly pulled ahead of “NASCAR dads” in the Winston Cup standings for the dominant political cliche of the 2004 electoral cycle.
The New York Times’ Katharine Seelye summarized the current Democratic anxiety about “security moms,” but may have missed a crucial distinction about the kinds of security issues that are driving these women back and forth between the candidates and the parties.
The best analysis of what makes “security moms” tick remains Garance Franke-Ruta’s April 2003 Washington Monthly essay, “Homeland Security Is For Girls.” In a masterpiece of the-personal-is-the-political analysis, Franke-Ruta began by observing that the duct-tape shoppers that surrounded her in the crowded Home Depot checkout lines during the first big Code Orange terrorism scare were overwhelmingly women. She went on to suggest that protection of the home against potential terrorist attacks–homeland security in the literal sense–is not a distraction from the traditional priorities of women, but an extension of them at a time when when war has become a domestic issue.
Franke-Ruta digressed a bit to take a few choice shots at the men who delegated Code Orange responsibilities to “the little woman at home,” while staying glued to SportsCenter. But her analysis still makes intuitive sense, and also helps explain some of the high-stakes partisan maneuvering this year to frame this or that issue as part of or separate from the war begun on 9/11.
Viewed from a gender perspective, the Kerry-Edwards “A Stronger America Begins At Home” slogan suggests that “security moms” don’t really have to choose between health care, jobs and personal safety. The Bush-Cheney effort to re-brand the Iraq war as an integral part of the immediate response to 9/11, rather than as a “war of choice” aimed at deposing a tyrant, was clearly targeted to voters, and especially women, who otherwise might be nearly as alarmed at the vision of Americans dying in Iraq as the memory of Americans dying in New York or at the Pentagon. And Kerry’s latest decision to focus on a critique of conditions in Iraq is arguably an effort to isolate “Bush’s war” from the war on terrorism, and perhaps even label it as a contributor to the terrorist risk.
My personal recommendation to Kerry’s wizards is that there is a rich lode to mine in Bush’s overall stewardship of national security, including the war on terror itself, and his incompetent management of the chaos in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In the end, shredding the president’s claim that we’re safe and secure–not to mention prosperous and united–is his hands is the trump card, for “security moms,” and for everyone else.

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