by Julia Kagan
ALL PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS ARE IMPORTANT, but some stand out as turning points, historic markers when the nation made a clear choice to take one path and not another. Think back to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal victory in 1932, Kennedy’s in 1960, Nixon’s in ’68, Reagan’s in 1980. This fall is another such moment, and to understand what’s at stake ON THE ISSUES talked to Tanya Melich, author of The Republican War Against Women: An Insider’s Report from Behind the Lines, a powerful indictment of the party she served so long. A cofounder of the pro-choice New York State Republican Family Committee and its executive director for 10 years, Melich was on the campaign staffs of Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller and Senator Jacob Javits, and was a key player in the election of New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. She was a delegate or an alternate to every Republican convention from 1952 to 1992, except 1984.
In chilling detail that makes this book a must-read for anyone seeking to understand this summer’s presidential conventions and platform fights, Melich, who was born into a politically active Republican family (her father was a Utah state senator), describes how New Right and religious right conservatives carefully and methodically captured the party of Lincoln.
The war against women is actually a relatively recent development, born of a calculated decision to exploit the backlash against women’s growing power and influence, she explains. It began with the “southern strategy” that helped win former “Dixiecrat” states for losing candidate GOP candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964 and – extended to exploit anti-busing sentiments in northern states – won the presidency for Nixon in ’68. Four years later, this New Majoritarian strategy, having built a Republican majority with conservative Democrats and independents angry at the sixties’ social and civil rights changes, won the election for Nixon again in ’72.
Women’s issues became an integral part of this strategy in 1980, the year the Republican party abandoned its support for the ERA, a platform plank since 1940. The party’s new misogynist approach helped elect Reagan by expanding its conservative pitch to include both the anti-ERA and anti-women’s-movement sentiments fanned by activists like Phyllis Schlafly and the anti-choice reaction to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.
Not that long ago, as Melich reminds us, Richard Nixon, Bob Dole, and George Bush all supported both the ERA and women’s control over reproductive choice. The world looks very different in 1996. “There is no moderate voice for women” among the leading Republican presidential candidates, she writes in the last chapter of her book, which was published in January. “On women’s issues they agree. They accept that the government should dictate reproductive choice, that it should not help with child care save in a token way, and that current affirmative action programs, even when they are couched in goals and timetables, should be reformed to the point that they are essentially useless.”
OTI interviewed Melich in early April, after Dole’s string of primary victories made him the certain Republican nominee. Patrick Buchanan, his only remaining challenger, had declared he would fight on until the party’s convention in San Diego in mid-August.
OTI: What are emerging as defining issues for ’96?
MELICH: If one can assume that Bosnia, China, Russia, or the Middle East don’t become the issue, then the issues are going to be domestic. I see three. The first is the tax issue, which for the Republican side is defined as less federal government, power transferred to the state governments, and less government spending on domestic programs – except defense. The subsets of the tax issue are welfare reform, education, environment, and the living wage, the idea that it isn’t enough to have a job if your wage is so small you can’t live on it.
The next issue is abortion. I think it will be as big as it was in ’92 because if Dole is elected, legal abortion except to save the life of the mother will be lost. You’re not going to have Bob Dole wake up the day after he’s nominated and say, “I am now supporting Roe v. Wade.” Meantime, the House and the Senate are at the present time anti-choice. (The House (with 2 vacancies) is 218 antichoice, 142 pro-choice, and 73 mixed; and the Senate 45 anti, 38 pro, and 17 mixed.) You also have the potential of two or three justices of the Supreme Court resigning during the next presidential term.
Third is the issue of intolerance, which of course choice is part of. The issue of one group claiming moral superiority over others will be a dominant undercurrent in the campaign. It can already be sensed in Dole’s statements promising to appoint only conservative judges. Dole won his nomination because the religious right moved its support to him from Buchanan. Dole owes them and will have to back most of their agenda.
OTI: Agree with it or not, one could argue that the Republican war against women that you describe has been a successful strategy. It kept Republicans in power for the 12 Reagan-Bush years before Clinton won, and they won again in ’94.
MELICH: The strategy fell apart in 1992 when Republican and independent women deserted Bush for Clinton and Perot. The question now is whether 1994 was a significant trend or an aberration.
Remember that ’94 was an off-year election. The out party from the White House generally does well in an off-year election. In 1994, women didn’t turn out to vote in the numbers they usually do. Generally more women than men vote, but in ’94 women represented only 51 percent of the electorate, compared with 53.5 percent in 1992. Women still voted more Democratic overall, 53 percent to 47 percent, but their backing was lukewarm. On the other hand, the men were enthusiastically for the Republican agenda of less taxes, smaller government, no gun control, and less regulation.
In the South, white women overwhelmingly voted Republican, but white women in the rest of the country didn’t give the Republicans strong backing. Nonwhite women, though, were strongly Democratic. These figures alone point toward a defeat for Dole in November if women turn out and vote like they did in 1992.
OTI: But Dole could also win with his strategy, especially if men are strongly for the Republicans and women are only lukewarm for the Democrats.
MELICH: That depends on how the campaign plays out. Some issues could make women more strongly Democrat. Many women who see the Republican party supporting the Christian right’s medieval idea of women say, “Even though I like the Republican tax policies, I can’t support them because of their intolerance.” Add on top of that the mean-spiritedness of the Gingrich revolution – and the data that show that women are more sympathetic to poor people, to the health, education, environment, and welfare issues – and you have two things that should make a difference in favor of the Democrats. In mid-April, a Los Angeles Times poll showed Clinton winning the women by 27 percent and the men by 8 percent over Dole.
In fact, Clinton has moved in the last year to co-opt the thrust of the Contract With America issues – welfare reform, tax issues, less government spending. The thing that kept moderates voting for Republicans was the economic issues. If Clinton can hold onto those issues, the only thing the Republicans have going for them is the intolerance issue, and it ‘ ‘ may not be enough.
OTI: There are people who say that women stayed home from the polls in ’94 because the Republicans and Democrats didn’t seem different enough to be worth the trouble of finding a babysitter.
MELICH: That’s the argument that got the United States Richard Nixon in 1968. That’s the old Marxist argument that “I don’t like these two and if I don’t vote then eventually it will get so bad that we’ll have a revolution.” That isn’t the way it works in our country. What happens is that whenever those in the center don’t vote, the right does well. As for liberals, the exit polls for ’92 and ’94 indicate very few seem to be voting; the number of voters who identify themselves as liberals is comparatively small.
In this year’s primaries and caucuses, many Republican women showed little interest in voting. The exceptions were GOP party stalwarts and the religious right women who form the backbone of the Christian Coalition’s grassroots workers. But after Buchanan won New Hampshire, some of the alienated Republican women who felt none of the GOP candidates represented them turned out to vote in order to stop Buchanan. In most cases, they voted for Dole not because they were enthusiastic but because he seemed the most likely candidate to stop Buchanan, who had scared them. This alienation was worst in New York, which is a strongly pro-choice state: 59 percent of those who voted were men, and 41 percent were women.
OTI: So they say that angry white men were the tilting factor in ’94. Could women make the difference in ’96?
MELICH: Yes, they could. Both the Dole and Clinton campaigns are targeting high-school educated men and women, particularly women. Conventional wisdom is that these high-school educated women, many of them single parents, will vote for Clinton if they can be convinced to vote. The Dole campaign hopes to win them over with its lower tax message as well as its promise to stop the nation’s moral decline. So now the Republican women’s backlash message used since 1980 will be used to win over not only angry men but ambivalent and unhappy women. It will be Clinton’s challenge to show that his programs and concern for working women through child care, educational opportunities, affirmative action, and reproductive freedom will not only bring more economic security but a better moral climate for these women’s children.
The wild card is Ross Perot. If he gets into the race, the angry men – the ones Buchanan is talking to – may go to Perot rather than Dole. And if Dole loses too many of these men, he will be in trouble. Recent polls show that Perot is popular among young men and women. It is too early to tell where they will go.
OTI: What do you say to strong feminists who are turned off by both parties?
MELICH: Radical feminists have to do what radical people always do, which is push the envelope. They have to do the same kind of things that Buchanan is doing with what he believes in. However, they have to be very careful in the context of the next six or nine months. If they push too hard they will end up with a right-wing President and Congress, and then they will lose badly – the most immediate being the right to choose. So this is not the time to be experimenting. The time to be doing this is after ’96, planning for the year 2000.
OTI: There’s been talk about a women’s party.
MELICH: I think a women’s party is stupid. What you will do is pull the feminists away from helping the Democratic party win elections at all. Feminists don’t need to organize a women’s party to gain power. They need to run primaries against those who oppose their agenda in the same way the Right took power away from the moderates in the Republican party. They should refuse to contribute to candidates who do not back their agendas but should vote in elections and help nominate candidates. If feminists spend their time and energy at this crucial juncture trying to organize a women’s party, they will become isolated. Elections are won with issue coalitions within the parties.
The thing that’s so impressive about, say, Emily’s List, is that there’s a hell of a lot of money there. If the Democratic party wants to win the House back, they need the money of Emily’s List. If the Emily’s List women and some of the radical women were to go off and form a third party, they are going to be over there with their 1 or 2 percent and they are not going to be relevant to the political dynamic of the moment. In addition, a women’s party sets up a kind of divisiveness that isn’t useful because you have many men who would probably be helpful otherwise, but might not on the basis of just gender. There are many ways to push agendas and going off and trying to form a political party in a system like ours is crazy. That kind of approach will work in a parliamentary system, and it will work in systems where you divide the vote up. But in a system where you have winner-take-all, it’s a waste of energy.
OTI: How is the election shaping up?
MELICH: I think the election is going to be very close. It looks like Ross Perot is getting into it and Buchanan is still a major factor. And we don’t know what will happen in Congress between now and August. Remember, we still don’t have a budget. And the right-to-life people are going to push for all of the rest of the anti-choice agenda they didn’t get before Christmas and they’re going to get it. This is a campaign season that is no holds barred. I haven’t seen an election like this since ’68, when Nixon won 43.4 percent of the vote to Humphrey’s 42.7 percent.
OTI: So can we expect a big women’s issue push in the fall?
MELICH: Not necessarily. Clinton and Dole would prefer not to talk about women’s issues directly because in both parties these issues create tensions they don’t want. There are people in the Democratic party who believe that Clinton hasn’t been concerned enough about poor women and takes for granted the Democratic party’s electoral advantage among women in general. Meanwhile, among the ambivalent women voters Clinton is trying to attract, women’s-issues rhetoric is seen as anti-family. The Clinton campaign continually stresses families when talking about women in an effort to co-opt the Republican “family values” offensive.
On their side, the Republicans limit their talk about women’s issues, arguing that there is no such thing, since women make up their minds based on their marital status, class, educational level, and ideology. They also don’t like to talk about women’s issues because inevitably abortion must be discussed and the party’s position on abortion is so alien to its traditional position of opposing government interference. Campaign strategists looking to unite Republicans try to play down the issue, even as the party’s religious right flank continually flogs it.
OTI: Where will Dole come down?
MELICH: Dole will not budge in his opposition to a woman’s right to an abortion. He will seek other ways to attract women voters but not so that it angers his base of angry white men. Dole will try to unite the Republicans around an economic agenda, promising a better economy through less taxes that will bring more jobs for all. He will emphasize returning America to the “traditional values” of the ’50s even as he will talk about equality for all women. But he will offer nothing that truly brings equal opportunity: He will oppose affirmative action programs including those with no quotas. He will oppose choice and comparable worth and raising the minimum wage. He will go along with the religious right’s interpretation of women’s role being to remain in the home and follow the natural law of God, which means obeying your husband or male relative or minister.
One of the rhetorical traps that women voters must not accept is the argument that the Republican issue agenda is friendly to all women because the party has impressive women as U.S. senators, House members, and staff people. Both Clinton and Dole have professional wives and women on their staffs in positions of power. One of the positive accomplishments of the women’s political movement is that both parties are now aware that running women candidates and having women staff in positions of authority is a plus, and both nominate and recruit them – maybe not enough to suit me, but it certainly is better than 25 years ago. The issue now is, what policies will they back?
OTI: So feminists who don’t really like Clinton’s conservative drift on welfare and other issues should vote for him anyway?
MELICH: Where else can feminist women go? Clinton is not about to appoint Supreme Court justices who are going to vote to throw out Roe v. Wade. It Dole, who will owe his victory to the right wing, is agreeing to an agenda that says that women are not able to be equal to men, that permeates through everything, not just choice. If you’re looking over the long-term, half a loaf is better than none. At least then you can begin to build on the half a loaf. A system like ours is too diverse. You only get part of what you want.
THE REPUBLICAN WAR AGAINST WOMEN “began when some ambitious ideologues discovered that backlash politics brought them power. It will end when Republican leaders discover it loses them power,” Melich concludes at the end of her book. Whether they’ll learn that in November is an open question.