‘Binders full of women’: Liability or sideshow?

October 17, 2012

The social media and political echo chamber have spoken: Mitt Romney's remark in Tuesday's presidential debate about "binders full of women" is the hottest topic in the land.

Romney's comment about gathering female applicants for his cabinet in Massachusetts was decidedly awkward. But Democrats are insisting it was more than that -- indicative of the way in which Romney thinks about females.

Who's right? At this point, it seems to be more a political sideshow than a real problem for the Romney campaign.

First, let's look at what Romney actually said:

ROMNEY: We took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said, “Can you help us find folks?” and they brought us whole binders full of women.

I was proud of the fact that, after I staffed my cabinet and my senior staff, that the University of New York in Albany did a survey of all 50 states, and concluded that mine had more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America.

The point Romney was clearly trying to make should have been a strong one for him: that he sought out qualified female applicants for his cabinet who, for whatever reason, hadn't been stepping forward. Romney initially filled 42 percent of senior-level appointments with women (though that number declined later in his administration), and the study he cited backs up his claim that this was the highest number in the country. (By way of comparison, 25 percent of President Obama's initial cabinet appointees were women.)

In addition, as we've written before, Romney's struggles with women voters in this campaign have been overblown. While Democrats continue to attack him on issues like contraception, polls have shown Romney's numbers with women are very much in line with past GOP presidential candidates. And it's normal for Republicans to perform a little worse among women than men, which is exactly what Romney is doing.

Nonetheless, Republicans have been forced to respond, with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) responding to the line of attack on a conference call this morning pointing to Obama's "empty binder."

"He's had two debates, he's had plenty of excuses, but he hasn’t offered up a plan," Priebus said. "That’s why were calling it an empty binder."

There is some downside to all of this for Romney.

Perhaps the biggest problem for him is that his inartful phrasing turned the focus from the number of women in his cabinet to his awkwardness and, Democrats hope, a broader discussion of where he -- and the GOP -- stands on women's issue. Instead of getting in a strong talking point on his hiring of women, we're all talking about "binders full of women". That's a missed chance for Romney.

In addition, the group responsible for assembling the "binders" is now saying that they -- not Romney -- initiated the process of gathering qualified female applicants. So we've got a fact-checker situation on our hands, ensuring this conversation will continue at least through tomorrow.

But all of this reeks of momentary distraction -- the kind of story that one side pushes for a short time in hopes of gaining traction and then backs off of, with little lasting impact.

That could change, of course (and the amount of attention devoted to the "binders" comment continues to surprise The Fix). But for now, it seems like something we -- and the vast majority of voters -- probably won't remember on Nov. 6.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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