The GOP challenger goes after undecided women voters—and steps into a mess of his own making
Virginia Heffernan is the national correspondent for Yahoo! News, covering culture and politics from a digital perspective. She wrote extensively on Internet culture during her eight years as a staff writer for The New York Times, and she has also worked at Harper’s, the New Yorker and Slate. Her new book, Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet, will be published in early 2013.
Mitt Romney’s already infamous, infelicitous phrase at Tuesday night’s debate—“binders full of women”—gave the GOP challenger a true Norma Rae moment. You see, when he was governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Romney, as he explained when questioned about wage inequality, learned a lot about the bum deal women get in this life.
“I had the chance to pull together a cabinet, and all the applicants seemed to be men,” he elaborated. “I went to my staff, and I said, ‘How come all the people for these jobs are all men?’ They said, ‘Well, these are the people that have the qualifications.’”
Feminist avenger Romney apparently didn’t like that answer so, he continued, he started a one-man ladies’ affirmative-action program. He went to his minions and said, “‘Gosh, can’t we find some women that are also qualified?’ And so we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks?’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.”
The remark did not accomplish what he’d hoped. In fact, it tipped the hand of Romney’s women panic so thoroughly that it’s likely his court-the-undecided-females’ game is now thrown.
Plus, it misses the mark of normalcy so absolutely that he comes off as comical. No wonder it became a meme on Twitter and other social media sites.
Just in case the humor seems opaque, let me offer a binder full of analysis.
First, his answer to a question about the grave subject of wage inequality flaunts his gender bias: In his anecdote, Romney ostentatiously refuses to consider qualified applicants just because they’re men.
Second, Romney in this instance was hiring for positions largely about optics: He wanted women in his cabinet so he could say he had women in his cabinet. He recruited women to be women—not cabinet members.
Third, the binders response raises the specter of a still more hideous idea. Before answering the question, Romney had been reminded that women earn about 72 percent what their male counterparts do—and his response was to say, “Exactly! That’s why, given half a chance, I hire women!” Bottom line, Romney recruits women because they look good and they come cheap.
The remark has done more than alienate women, for whom—as all recent data confirms—no one needs to do any special favors. For years, and to the despair of mothers of sons, females have been far more educated and better qualified than male applicants for almost anything. They also get jobs easily and don’t need someone searching high and low for binders of resumes. They just need to get paid fairly for what they do.
Lastly, Romney’s remark exposed something on flagrant display all night. It’s that he’s a boss—and only a boss. He sees everything from the throne of a massive realm: Massachusetts, Bain Capital, and the many businesses he’s “had the privilege of staffing,” or however he puts it.
In yet another riff, one which might be more telling about Romney’s persona if less hilarious than the binder comment—and given in response to the question, “What plans do you have to put back and keep jobs here” in the U.S.—Romney said half-a-million manufacturing jobs had been lost in the last four years. “One of the reasons … is that people think it’s more attractive, in some cases, to go offshore than to stay here. We have made it less attractive for enterprises to stay here than to go offshore from time to time.”
People think it’s more attractive to go offshore? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never met a single person—no Joe Neighbor or Sally Gastroenterologist—who says, “I’m going offshore, where it’s more attractive.”
Who goes “offshore,” then? Enterprises do. Corporations. The same entities that, in his heart, Romney still believes are people. When Romney speaks of turning every American into a small-business king, it’s his way of rhetorically transforming American citizens, who baffle him, into American businesses, which he understands.
This is too bad. Romney is never going to make a connection with ordinary people—women or men—as long as he sees corporations as people, and people as the pitiful 47 percent of us who drag down that corporate super race.
Last night, when a college kid asked Romney whether he’d find a job out of college, Romney more or less promised to hire him. That’s the Romney solution. At the same time, Romney refuses to admit that this time around he’s the job seeker. The American people may not have a binder full of women at the moment, but we have a binder with two resumés in it. And, as we do every four years, we get to decide who gets hired.