Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Sunday, December 4, 2016

What do women want? Republicans are trying to answer that question and, as usual, they are getting it wrong.

The party has an unerring genius for alienating exactly the demographics it needs to win the White House. Republicans have made it harder for students, urbanites, and minorities to vote. Many of their presidential candidates are competing over who can deport the most immigrants and build the best border wall. Why should the GOP approach to women be any different?

Donald Trump, who has been flamboyantly insulting to immigrants, isn’t helping Republicans with women, either. His history of crude insults about female appearances led NBC’s Chuck Todd to ask him, “Why do looks matter to you so much?” He still talks in weird generalizations and 1950s stereotypes about women (see: “I cherish women” or “women love me” or “I understand the importance of women”).

You’d think Carly Fiorina, another presidential contender from the business world, and the only woman in the GOP field, would have a better handle on this. But she has become a lightning rod because she opposes a requirement that businesses offer paid leave to new parents. She wants it to be a perk companies offer to attract workers.

The United States is the only advanced country that doesn’t give employees paid parental leave, as President Obama has noted repeatedly. But Fiorina says requiring paid parental leave discourages the hiring and promotion of women. Besides, she asks, who would pay for it?

Fiorina’s position, however, carries its own health and monetary costs. Mothers who don’t take leave are less likely to breastfeed or bring a baby to doctor appointments. And low-income workers who take unpaid leave to care for an infant often rely on government help. “When a low-wage worker cannot even have a sick day or a paid leave day after the birth of an infant, she is far more likely to go on assistance, public assistance,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) sponsor of a bill requiring paid leave, told Fortune magazine. The upshot is that taxpayers foot the bill, she added.

As for the politics of paid leave, Fiorina’s stand is a loser. Polls show 60 to 80 percent of Americans support requiring paid leave for new parents. That 80 percent figure, from a CBS/New York Times poll in May, includes 71 percent of Republicans and 85 percent of women.

Now abortion is preoccupying the GOP, thrust there by conservatives who secretly filmed Planned Parenthood executives talking casually and graphically about the mechanics and costs of donating tissue from aborted fetuses for research. Republican candidates have grabbed at the chance to demonstrate their credentials as cultural conservatives — emphasizing their opposition to abortion and demanding an end to federal funding of Planned Parenthood, even if that leads to a government shutdown. Some 50 advocacy groups are co-sponsoring protests in nearly 300 cities this weekend to highlight what the Family Research Council calls “Planned Parenthood’s harvesting and selling of aborted baby parts.”

Ohio governor John Kasich explained the rising prominence of the abortion issue this way recently on CNN: “Now that the issue of gay marriage is kind of off the table, we’re kind of down to one social issue.”

The nature of the GOP primary electorate requires that Republican candidates take as hard a line as they can against abortion and explain in great detail their positions on exceptions, restrictions, and any shifts in thinking they may have undergone. They may be convinced that this won’t hurt them with women or moderates in a general election. Gallup found in May that 21 percent of Americans would only vote for a candidate who shared their view on abortion. That’s an all-time high in the 19 years the question has been asked, but they were about equally divided on both sides of the issue.

So does that make it a wash? Probably not. For one thing, the tide seems to be turning in the other direction. Half of Americans told Gallup in May that they were “pro-choice” on abortion compared with 44 percent who said they were “pro-life.” Analyst Lydia Saad wrote that was the first statistically significant lead for the “pro-choice” position in seven years. In addition, polls show pluralities of Americans have positive views of Planned Parenthood and oppose cutting off its federal money.

That hasn’t stopped various Republican hopefuls from calling for a Justice Department investigation into Planned Parenthood. Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana governor, has even vowed to sic the IRS on the group. The crusade is a classic example of overreach that could backfire in a general election. Republicans are their own worst enemy on this, but here’s the real problem: They are jeopardizing health care for low-income women who need birth control, cancer screening, or — yes — an abortion. The potential political bonanza for the Democratic nominee is not worth that price.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

File photo: Protesters stand on a sidewalk outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Vista, California, August 3, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Blake