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THE NATION / GENDER GAP

Women Do Support the GOP

CAMPAIGN ROADMAP: A continuing series of articles analyzing the '96 presidential strategies.

September 29, 1996|Mary Matalin | Mary Matalin, co-author of "All's Fair: Love, War and Running for President" (Random House/Simon & Schuster), is host of the Mary Matalin Show on CBS Radio. She served as deputy campaign manager for George Bush in 1992

WASHINGTON — As it turns out, President Bill Clinton really is a ladies' man. No, this column isn't about character, it's about chutzpah.

Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, 29 years old and president of her own polling company, recently quantified a fact that should make the hair on conservatives' necks stand on end: "Women support Republican proposals when they do not know Republicans have proposed them."

The key to overcoming the overanalyzed--but still misunderstood--gender gap is revealed in that one fact. And it should be the departure point for any GOP campaign strategy to retrieve female voters.

Clearly, Clinton not only knows, but is prospering politically from this phenomena. Last week, with great fanfare, he signed the Newborns' and Mothers' Health Protection Act. The bill's GOP House sponsor, Rep. Gerald B.H. Solomon (N.Y.), who initiated the legislation, was not even invited, let alone acknowledged by the legislation-larcenist president. Lawmakers of both parties told me they could not remember a president excluding a bill's sponsor from a signing ceremony. This mean-spirited, petty action reflects Clinton's vacuous character as well as his superior political prowess. He understands the critical women's vote.

The president's capacity to cry on command makes me, and most jaded political junkies, gag--but women eat it up. It's empathy, stupid.

Clinton's contenders (myself included) would be well-advised to quit convulsing at his transparent antics and concentrate on why they are producing such unparalleled political results. They must understand that women bring the same sensibilities to politics as they do to their personal affairs. A woman's world view and information-intake processes are intellectually and emotionally different from a man's. Many a marriage has been saved by this simple recognition. Conservatives can save their party and promote their philosophy not by changing their message but by conveying it in ways intelligible to women.

They can begin a gender reconciliation by acknowledging this stark reality: 60% of women with children under age 19, and 61% of all women, worry about "having enough time to do everything they need to do and still spend time with their family. To men, time is money; to women, time is invaluable.

With precious little time to dedicate to politics, political accommodations should be made to better communicate with women. It is widely known that women communicate empathetically (not exclusively, but generally). Apply this empathy prism to welfare reform, for example. Fitzpatrick found, "Women are very dissatisfied with the current system, but fear reforms that may leave some other woman out on the street." They are also empathetic to the degradation of intergenerational dependence. Michigan Gov. John Engler, the cutting-edge welfare reformer, respects this female perspective when he recounts his conversations with former welfare moms now at work because of his programs. They always say the same thing, "It means so much to my kids that I'm working; they're so proud of me, they're even doing better in school!"

Balancing the federal budget, cutting taxes? Women's empathetic instinct compels them, even while being overwhelmingly supportive, to ask how can this be done without hurting someone. Of course, everyone is hurt by Clinton's policies--which have produced the slowest recovery in a century.

This raises again the "time" issue with women. Women don't have time to calculate the difference between a 3.4% (the Dole plan) and 2.4% (Clinton's plan) annual growth rate. They don't even have time to do the math for a 15% tax rate reduction or child tax credit. That's why Dole is smart to emphasize a working couple with two kids making $30,000 a year would save $1,261 per year under his plan. So is GOP conference chair Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio. He points out what $105 extra a week really means to this family: greater purchasing power, for items like a phonics package to teach kids to read (as opposed to Clinton's big-government proposal to spend $1.5 billion on volunteer tutors--and, by the way, why aren't kids learning in school?!).

Another political communication impediment for women is language. Every year, women sign 80% of the personal checks written in this country. So they know a little something about balancing budgets but don't deal much with how those family finances are "scored." There are no Congressional Budget Offices on Main Street. Unfortunately, Republicans came to this realization long after the damage was done. Following weeks of public wrangling over this critical point--and finally beating the administration into capitulation--they enjoyed, at best, a political pyrrhic victory.

Women come from and rely on an oral tradition--where language is critical. They attach far different meaning to terms like "radical" and "revolutionary"--to them those descriptors befit Fidel Castro, not carefully constructed reform.

Again, Republicans now realize this and have tempered their phraseology. But this knowledge must be incorporated into every public pronouncement. So, we're not "abolishing" ineffective, counterproductive government departments, we're "cutting wasteful government spending."

Finally, symbols are critical to communicating with women. Visual cues are the mainstay of our intuitive powers. Visually display the GOP's plans to enhance family purchasing power. Lug a week's worth of groceries or a home computer to your campaign events. The Dole campaign should get our many talented female conservatives out there. If Clinton can hoist a desk to the precipice of the Grand Canyon to assure a pristine, picture-perfect photo-op, surely, Republicans can dig up a few among the millions of conservative women for the political paparazzi.

The beauty of these recommendations for tactical adjustments is they in no way require philosophical adjustments. Women support you, they just don't know it.

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