Mitt Romney's flip-flop on stay-at-home moms: Will it matter?

Mitt Romney said four months ago that women receiving public assistance should work outside the home, which seems to contradict last week's attempt to score points with stay-at-home moms.

Michael Conroy/AP
In this photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, accompanied by his wife Ann, prepares to speak at the National Rifle Association convention in St. Louis, Friday, April 13.

Over the weekend, MSNBC aired a Mitt Romney sound bite that, on the face of it, seemed pretty stunning. Speaking in New Hampshire just four months ago, the candidate was explaining why he favored work requirements for poor women receiving public assistance – even if it ultimately cost the state more money in day-care expenses. The answer? Because they need to experience "the dignity of work."

Here's the full quote:

"While I was [Massachusetts] governor, 85 percent of the people on a form of welfare assistance in my state had no work requirement. And I wanted to increase the work requirement. I said, for instance, that even if you have a child 2 years of age, you need to go to work. And people said, well that’s heartless. And I said no, no, I’m willing to spend more giving day care to allow those parents to go back to work. It will cost the state more, providing that day care. But I want the individuals to have the dignity of work."

Why was this comment potentially problematic? Because it came, of course, after several days in which the Romney campaign gleefully scored points off Democrat Hilary Rosen's remark on CNN that stay-at-home mom Ann Romney "never worked a day in her life." As the presidential campaign went into a "mommy wars" time warp, Ms. Romney tweeted that she was proud to have stayed home to raise her five boys, adding, "Believe me, it was hard work."

That set off a furious public discussion in which nearly everyone, Democrats and Republicans alike, made the same basic points over and over again: (1) Raising kids is hard work. (2) Staying home is a personal decision that women make based on a variety of factors. (3) But the main factor involved is money – and most women can't afford to do it. 

Despite being a "debate" with no real points of disagreement, it made for a few good news cycles for Mr. Romney. It put his wife – a popular and sympathetic figure – squarely in the public eye for the first time, as a champion of stay-at-home moms. It was one of the campaign's longest stretches on offense yet. And it gave Romney an opening to appeal to women voters, among whom he trails President Obama (by 19 points in a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll). Ms. Romney even called the whole flap "an early birthday present."

So now that it's come out that Romney himself actually thinks poor women need "the dignity of work" – and that work doesn't include raising their children – you'd think that would undercut whatever points his campaign may have scored last week.

Yet so far, it appears not. True, liberal blogs have been all over the hypocrisy argument. But the mainstream media have for the most part moved on – instead, focusing mostly Monday on Romney's comments at a weekend fundraiser about which federal departments he might cut, as well as the ever-popular speculation about the vice-presidential search.

It's a perfect example of the fireworks-like media environment that The New York Times's Brian Stelter evoked this weekend, in a piece that characterized political stories as going "from flash to fizzle": They "burn more brightly" but also are "extinguished faster," Mr. Stelter wrote, with "Google search rankings, video view records and Twitter trending topics tell[ing] users when the crowd has moved on."

When the controversy is largely superficial – and artificial – to begin with, it makes it even harder to generate much interest in subsequent revelations involving policy positions. The Rosen-Romney flap was never about policy; it was about stereotypes and a perceived insult. And by the time Romney's actual position on women and work was aired – and shown to run counter to the substance of the argument his campaign seemed to be making – it didn't seem to matter. 

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