'Binders full of women': a revealing remark from Romney, or a sideshow?

'Binders full of women' is already the most memorable phrase of the second presidential debate, showing just how much the 2012 campaign revolves around issues narrowly targeted to specific groups – a strategy of the Obama campaign.

Rick Wilking/Reuters
President Obama listens as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney answers a question during the second presidential debate in Hempstead, N.Y., Tuesday night.

With all the challenges facing our nation – from the millions of Americans still unemployed to terrorist threats abroad – is the presidential election really coming down to a fight over Planned Parenthood and Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women”?

That last phrase, of course, was the unfortunate choice of words Mr. Romney used in Tuesday night’s debate in explaining how, as a governor, he had made an explicit effort to appoint women to his Massachusetts cabinet. Upon discovering that most applicants for the posts were men, Romney said he asked his staff: “Well, gosh, can't we – can't we find some – some women that are also qualified?" He went on: "And – and so we – 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.” 

Let’s put aside the fact that the accuracy of Romney’s remarks has already come into question. (The Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus reportedly prepared the “binder” in question well before the election, and had presented it to both Romney and his opponent.) Or that the substance of his response was, in essence, a dodge of the question posed, which had been about equal pay for women.

The larger point is, in a feisty and serious debate that ranged from energy policy to tax policy to the attack in Libya, it’s telling that the most memorable phrase to emerge from the whole evening was “binders full of women.” It was, as many commentators have pointed out, this debate’s Big Bird.

Apparently, that’s just how the Obama team wants it. With an economic record that’s still far short of where he hoped it would be – and with critics accusing the president of failing to offer a concrete, overarching vision for the next four years – Obama has run a campaign that often seems to focus instead on narrower appeals to specific segments of the electorate, just as George W. Bush did in 2004.

Which is why, throughout this election cycle, we’ve heard so much about the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and whether insurers should have to cover contraception. And why the Democrats gave former Georgetown Law student (and Rush Limbaugh bête noire) Sandra Fluke a prime speaking slot at their convention. And why swing states are currently being pummeled with ads by the likes of Scarlett Johansson and Eva Longoria, talking about how Romney wants to overturn Roe v. Wade.

This is not to say that these issues aren’t important – or that women (and men) shouldn’t take them into account when they head into the voting booth. Certainly, women, like all voters, want a president who shares their values – including their views on gender and equality – and for many, Romney’s remarks may have presented an important window into his character.

But it still feels, for lack of a better word, like a bit of a sideshow. A distraction from the main event.

Of course, the Romney campaign has at times played the same game – remember the ridiculous brouhaha over lobbyist Hilary Rosen’s comment about Ann Romney never having worked a day in her life? Or Mrs. Romney’s heavy-handed “I love you, women!” shout-out at the Republican National Convention?

The pandering on both sides reflects just how crucial women voters will be to this election. Independent women are seen as a critical swing voting bloc, and they make up many of the “undecided” voters still remaining out there. In 2008, Obama won women by 13 percentage points, and he has maintained a double-digit lead among women voters throughout much of this campaign. But a recent much-publicized Gallup Poll (which the Obama campaign called an outlier) showed Romney tied with Obama among women. Other recent polls have shown Obama still ahead, but by less than his 2008 margin.  

There’s no question Romney helped Obama out Tuesday night with his awkward choice of words. Immediately after he uttered the phrase, Twitter was flooded with quips, most of which were along the lines of “I’ve seen those binders (heh, heh).” It was all made even funnier by Romney’s squeaky-clean, 1950s technocrat image (he loves those three-ring binders!). Within minutes, “binders full of women” had inspired a mocking Facebook page and Tumblr filled with joking pictures of women and binders (sample caption: “Trap Her Keep Her!”).   

But given the urgent challenges the country is facing right now – including the looming "fiscal cliff," which economists warn could lead to another recession if Washington fails to act, and which has nevertheless not come up in any presidential or vice-presidential debate – well, it all seems oddly off-point. The recent Gallup poll showed the top issues for women right now are health care and the deficit and national debt. In the final days of the presidential campaign, maybe that’s what we should be talking about.

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