The Obama campaign’s fixation on Mitt Romney’s reference in the second presidential debate to getting “binders full of women [candidates]” when he was looking to staff his administration as governor of Massachusetts set off guffaws in the Romney camp. No one is more amazed by the Obama campaign’s antics than Romney’s longtime chief of staff Beth Myers. In a phone conversation Thursday afternoon, Myers, who is now one of Romney’s top campaign advisers, called the attacks on his record of hiring women “utter nonsense.” She pointed to the women who held the top positions in his administration, including his head of legislative affairs (Cindy Gillespie), Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, his press secretary and of course herself.
Myers didn’t know Romney well before his gubernatorial run but volunteered for the campaign and helped with his debate preparation. As an attorney and former chief of staff for the state treasurer she nevertheless recognized that it was “a big step up” from volunteer to chief of staff. At the time, she had two children, ages 12 and 9. When her kids were young, “My husband and I made the decision I wouldn’t work. When Mitt asked me [to join as chief of staff], my kids were older, and I was very interested.”
She told me a story familiar to many working women. “I had to be available when my kids came home, in those ‘bewitching hours’ [late afternoon].” She discussed it with Romney, who told her simply to be flexible. She would come in early and work through lunch. Then after her kids had gone to sleep at night, she recounted, “I cleared my virtual desk.” She said simply, “We made it work.”
As for the binders, she laughs at the notion, propounded by some media figures, that they didn’t exist. “In 2002, there was no monster.com,” she related. Romney was new to government and made clear he didn’t want to recycle the same faces. “Mitt wanted to reach out beyond state government in every way,” she said. They created an Internet portal (from a 2012 vantage point, she acknowledged that this sounds “quaint”) to solicit resumes and went around the commonwealth to search for candidates. One part of that hiring search came in the form of “thick three-ring binders, with tabs” filled with information on potential candidates, which had been compiled by an outside nonprofit group called the Massachusetts Government Appointments Project (MassGAP). In the debate this week, Myers said, “Mitt remembered that.”
Myers said that since Obama’s campaign has made an issue of the remark, “I have an inbox that has been flooded from women who say, ‘I think it’s great he reached out and understood you have to be flexible.’ Not a single one has been anything but positive.” She scoffed at the Obama campaign’s suggestion that this was somehow insulting to women. “That’s not the reaction of normal men and women,” she told me.
Ironically, Myers has been a key figure in Romney’s debate prep sessions. The debates helped erase Obama’s lead and dissipate the gender gap. Myers attributed both to the same phenomenon. “The debates are an opportunity for the people in America to see Mitt outside the prism of the Obama ads and the media. These are a distorting lens. Once the curtain is pulled back, men and women said, ‘That’s not the guy [Obama and the media] portrayed.”
Romney has tried a fundamentally different approach to women voters than the Obama team, which hypes abortion, contraception and other so-called “women’s” issues. Romney’s campaign believes that talking pocketbook issue, health-care costs and the responsibility to future generations — essentially his core economic message — will resonate with women. Since the first two debates, he’s eschewed grittier attack ads for softer, more positive ads in which he or surrogates talk directly to the camera. Whether or not that is aimed particularly at women, it does reflect the Romney team’s growing awareness that unfiltered Romney is the best antidote to the Romney caricature put forth by the Obama campaign.
Myers wouldn’t say so, but I got the impression from her that the Romney camp would be thrilled to talk about Romney’s hiring record from now until the election. If the Obama team wants to obsess on an issue Romney feels is an asset to him, well then, the Romney team would be delighted to play along.