Republican candidates have learned that waging a “war on women" – more than half the electorate – is a label to avoid, especially as they may face a woman in the 2016 presidential race.
But you wouldn’t know that from Donald Trump’s answer to an early question in Thursday’s GOP presidential debate from Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly.
“You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals,' " Ms. Kelly said during the debate, which set a cable record, with 24 million viewers tuning in. "How will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who [is] likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?”
“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” Mr. Trump said, to some applause.
Then it got slightly ugly. “And honestly Megyn, if you don’t like it, I’m sorry. I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn’t do that,” Trump said.
Later that night, it got uglier, still. Trump opined from his Twitter account that the biggest loser of the night was @megynkelly, calling her "unprofessional" and saying she "really bombed tonight."
As a general rule, handing Democrats talking points in the general election to gin up turnout for their side is a bad idea. The exception to that rule is when it can boost turnout for a candidate in the GOP primary.
That may have been Trump’s calculation in swatting off a question he clearly hadn’t expected.
Conservative voters are angry about political correctness, too. So the dodge may work, despite the uproar in the Twitterverse, after the Trump exchange. Certainly, it wouldn’t be the first time GOP establishment, the news media, or Tweetland declared Trump dead, only to see polls give him another boost.
But with the GOP-controlled Congress threatening to cut funding for Planned Parenthood in the fall, the revival of claims that Republicans are waging a war on women clearly troubles some conservative commentators and GOP hopefuls wary of tarnishing the brand.
“There’s a fine line between political correctness and polite, and I’m not sure Trump knows where it is,” says Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for the the Cook Political Report in Washington.
The controversy in Congress over defunding Planned Parenthood “has opened the door” to claims that Republicans don’t care about women’s health and are waging a war on women, she adds.
On Friday, the conservative website Breitbart News chided Kelly for legitimizing the “meme used by the Democratic Party to attack Republicans” by even asking the question.
“Kelly’s decision to omit ‘so-called’ prior to ‘war on women’ is critical, as it suggests she legitimized the Democratic Party’s mantra, which it has been using for years against Republican challengers.”
But the danger for Republicans in the revival of a "war on women" narrative runs deeper than an "inappropriate joke by Donald Trump," says Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University.
"It taps into a perception that's been around for decades now that the challenges that different groups of women face are not front and center for the GOP and that Democrats will take these concerns more seriously," he adds. "Republicans need a response to that."
Earlier this week, Jeb Bush, another front-runner, quickly walked back a remark he made during an interview at the Southern Baptist Forum in Nashville that appeared to suggest that he didn't value spending on women's health. Commenting on the Planned Parenthood dispute, he said: “I’m not sure we need a half-billion dollars for women’s health issues.”
Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton responded in a tweet: “You are absolutely, unequivocally wrong.”
Bush issued a clarification. The $500 million referred to ‘hard-to-fathom’ federal funding to Planned Parenthood, he said in a statement Tuesday evening.
After Thursday’s debate, GOP Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who participated in an earlier debate for GOP candidates who did not make the Top 10, called Bush’s comments “foolish."
“It’s really disappointing when a front-runner gives the Democrats an ad and a talking point before he’s even in the race,” she said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, another candidate who did not make the cut for the prime-time debate, turned the question into an issue of war and peace abroad. Asked whether cutting funding to Planned Parenthood that people will say provides “positive things for many women” could be used against Republicans, he said: “Let's take the money that we would give to Planned Parenthood and put it in women's health care....”
“You want to see a war on women? Come with me to Iraq and Afghanistan, folks,” he added. I’ve been there 35 times. I will show you what they do to women.”