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Mitt the Jerk: a Woman’s View of the Debate

At the risk of going all Maureen Dowd here, I’d like to suggest that in the second presidential debate on Tuesday night, we met Mitt the Man. He’s always been there, surfacing briefly at the Republican National Convention to implausibly claim that he has always believed wife Ann’s job raising their sons “was a lot more important than mine”—as if Romney sincerely believed that for decades he pursued a less important career path. For the most part, however, Mitt the Man had been under wraps until he emerged in full-force at Hofstra University. Just who is he?

Mitt the Man gets his way by talking over you and not stopping until you give in so he can make his point. Which he may have forgotten by then, because getting his way was the point.

Mitt the Man can go from charming to testy in two seconds flat because while he has tolerated you as a female colleague, he will not allow you to disrespect him and his authoritah!

Mitt the Man is not self-aware enough to realize that he can be easily goaded and that you are pushing his buttons.

Mitt the Man feels sorry for you as a single parent and your sure-to-be-screwed-up kids.

Mitt the Man cannot help but disappoint you because his chivalry is all about saying the right thing as opposed to doing the right thing.

It’s fair to say that Mitt the Man did not have a great evening on Tuesday. He bragged about filling positions in his state cabinet by consulting “whole binders full of women,” sounding amazed that so many smart, qualified women existed while also calling to mind the days when men selected their mail-order brides from plastic binders of photos. He talked about how in a Romney administration, employers would be so “anxious” to hire good workers that they might even consider women. He fumbled an otherwise reasonable point about the connection between family structure and poverty (one key reason most anti-poverty advocates support family planning, sex education, access to contraception) by managing to sound like he was blaming single moms for horrific gun violence.

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(Rhetorical flubs aside, Romney also failed to substantively and accurately address many issues concerning women. The binder story came up only as Romney sought to avoid answering a question about whether women deserve equal pay for equal work. Perhaps he wanted to avoid sounding like his GOP colleague Sen. Scott Brown, who earlier this year called pay equity “job-killing burdens.” Regardless, Romney’s ability to identify and hire qualified women is as irrelevant to the issue of equal pay as his compassion for fellow Mormons is to the impact of gutting anti-poverty programs.)

But mostly, Mitt the Man interrupted and ignored the evening’s most prominent woman, moderator Candy Crowley of CNN. In one particularly uncomfortable exchange, Crowley attempted to get Romney to explain his arithmetic for massive-tax-cut + increased-defense-spending + closing-of-unspecified-tax-loopholes + cuts-to-PBS-and-Planned-Parenthood = lowered deficit. “If somehow when you get in [the White House], there isn’t enough tax revenue coming in, if somehow the numbers don’t add up,” asked Crowley, “would you be willing to look again at a 20 percent…” “Well, OF COURSE, they add up,” interrupted a visibly annoyed Romney. “I was someone who ran businesses for 25 years and balanced the budget. I ran the Olympics and balanced the budget. I ran the state of Massachusetts, to the extent any governor does, and balanced the budget all four years.”

The dismissive lecture Romney gave Crowley was devastating—but not in the way he intended. He defended his honor as a businessman, but at the cost of reminding undecided women of every man who ever made them feel stupid or who cut them down just to win an argument.

A popular theory to explain Romney’s rise in the polls over the past two weeks is that undecided women flocked to him after his performance in the first presidential debate. The Romney campaign certainly seems to think it has a good chance of winning over those voters—the candidate trotted out a new new position on abortion last week, and on Tuesday the campaign released a television ad casting Romney as a moderate on abortion and birth control issues. Romney made special mention of “women living in poverty” on Tuesday evening. And during the debate, Americans for Prosperity even tweeted one of my columns that criticized Obama for relying mostly on male senior advisors.

There are still three weeks before Election Day, when we’ll learn the size of the gender gap between the two candidates. But if those undecided women end up pulling the lever for Democrats, the Romney camp will end up wishing Mitt the Man had stayed out of sight.