Amidst all the hilarity about binders on Facebook and Tumblr, which I’ve enjoyed as much as anyone, Tuesday night’s debate was actually fascinating for what it told us about what could–and couldn’t–be said about women’s rights, race, and most of all, class.
The question about women’s unequal pay opened up a robust national space to talk about feminism in a way that was not reduceable to abortion rights for the first time since, I don’t know, about 1980. The targeted polling that has told both Romney and Obama that they need to win women’s votes has mapped onto them at least talking about feminist agendas, but they are talking about very different ones.
Romney, aside from being English-language challenged and honesty-impaired (he didn’t solicit the binder, it was pressed upon him and he made a campaign promise to use it), laid out the executive-class agenda for feminism: flexible work schedules for mothers (though apparently not fathers) and affirmative action hiring strategies, where if the applicant pool doesn’t reflect the demographics of who’s out there, you affirmatively recruitment women (and people of color, although Romney didn’t say that). The next day, his campaign released an ad saying he supported abortion rights in cases of rape and incest and did not oppose contraception “at all,” although Planned Parenthood promptly issued a rejoinder pointing out that he had threatened to outlaw abortion entirely and supported the Blunt amendment, which would limit insurance coverage of contraception.
Obama, who referred to Romney’s threat to “get rid of” Planned Parenthood at least four times, laid out a broader, more middle-class agenda, claiming a series of victories on feminist issues: access to the courts for women with equal-pay claims under the Lilly Ledbetter Act, child-care tax credits, insurance coverage for birth control, and support for legal abortion.
Lest we might think that Romney just forgot to mention his support for women who are not well-off, he clarified his views on working-class women a few moments later, when he explained why our country is riven with gun violence and there is nothing that can or should be done about it at the federal level: the problem is single mothers (he said, “and Dads,” but that fooled no one. Mothers are 85% of the single parents out there, but that number is much higher if you exclude divorced parents. Mitt quickly clarified that he meant out-of-wedlock births, which is code for an old conversation in this country: the supposedly loose morals of Black women.) So it turns out that gun violence is the fault of Black mothers. Surprise, surprise.
Interestingly, Romney also made the exact same kind of class argument about immigration. When asked about Dream Act eligible kids, he said no, he wouldn’t support a pathway to citizenship for them. Instead, he made a distinction between “illegals” and the good immigrants whom he would like to invite into the country–foreign nationals with a college degree. Never mind his claim that “it would definitely help to be Latino” in this campaign, the charge that he went on Univision in brown-face, or his confusion about whether Mexican is a nationality and race (as the child of Mexican-born parents, Romney is eligible for Mexican citizenship). Romney is not polling well with Latino voters; in recent Pew poll, 61% saw Democrats as more sympathetic to their issues, while only 10% said Republicans were. This may account in part for the fact that one poll found Obama 2 percentage points ahead of Romney in Arizona.
This is actually a little surprising, given the evidence from California’s Proposition 187 campaign (which was the opening salvo in the war to deny public benefits, like access to schools and hospitals, to those without papers) that a distressing number of U.S.-born Latinos are willing to support measures that punish undocumented immigrants. In other words, his class agenda for immigration ought to poll at least middling among US Latinos. However, Romney’s claim Tuesday night that he did not support Arizona’s SB 1070–which is a little fishy; a truer statement would be that he has neither supported nor condemned it, trying to win the white racist vote while not quite supporting the full measure of their craziness–may give a truer picture of why his support among Latinos is so anemic. US Latinos hate SB 1070 because it targets them–it invites racist cops to harass anyone who looks like they might be undocumented if they have been stopped for another reason. The thing is, anyone who has lived in Arizona is familiar with law enforcement’s willingness to stop people for the crime of driving while brown. The stop doesn’t have to result in a charge, or the charge doesn’t have to hold up in court, especially not if your real goal is to check someone’s immigration status. And of course, immigration status is not a precise thing, nor something that can reliably be proven, especially at a traffic stop–my suburban WASP mother has a defective birth certificate that kept her from flying for all of 2001; the Violence Against Women Act (VOWA) creates a class of people who may be temporarily deportable but ultimately eligible for a green card; and it is well-known that ICE accidentally deports thousands of US citizens every year. Unless Romney is willing to denounce it, he’s toast with Latino voters.
Meanwhile, because it was a question about Dream Act kids, Obama got a pass on that question, and didn’t have to answer the question of why his administration deported a record number of people in 2011. Or rather, he addressed that issue in a way that spoke to middle and working-class Latinos–by claiming he was deporting the gang-bangers whose activities affect working-class communities more than anyone else. What he didn’t acknowledge was that many of the “crimes” for which people were being deported were invented by the Bush administration: using false IDs.
While Romney’s closing statement renounced his 47% claims, his class agenda just didn’t change in the debate. It just got more subtle.