Sen. Olympia Snowe on how the GOP can mend its image among women

It is unfortunate that the stunningly insensitive statement about rape made last weekend by Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) is casting a shadow over the start of the Republican National Convention. Republican leaders, led by Mitt Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan, rightfully and strongly repudiated his remarks.

Yet, the comments from Akin reinforce the perception that we in the Republican Party are unsympathetic to issues of paramount concern to women.

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I have worked for three decades as a staunch advocate of building a “big tent” party that includes both pro-choice and pro-life Republicans. In that time, I have seen controversies such as this one alienate a large segment of the female population and perpetuate the gender gap among voters that has historically plagued our party.

This is not where I hoped my party would be in 2012. Today, the Republican Party faces a clear challenge: Will we rebuild our relationship with women, thereby placing us on the road to success in November, or will we continue to isolate them and certainly lose this election?

The Akin controversy and the ongoing debate over abortion are especially regrettable given the fact that Romney had made inroads with female voters. The most recent three-week average of polls from Gallup — taken before the controversy — showed him down only eight points to President Obama among women. That was a marked improvement from earlier margins; he was down 20 points in the spring.

At the convention, Romney must work to overcome what others in our party have done to undermine our standing with women, and he must restore the image of who we are as Republicans.

The convention affords him the first unfettered opportunity to reset the debate. When he takes center stage, he can restate who he is and what he hopes to accomplish as president. First and foremost, Romney should vigorously, not timidly, disassociate himself from the extremes within our party by reiterating to the national audience that the overly rigid language on abortion in the GOP platform — which includes no explicit exceptions for cases of rape, incest or danger to the life of the mother — does not represent his view, nor has it been his position. In fact, 75 percent of Americans agree with Romney that these exceptions should be recognized, according to a recent Gallup survey, putting him squarely in the mainstream on this issue. In doing so, he will demonstrate that he can strongly stand up to those with whom he disagrees, even within his party.

He should also emphasize his strong record on women’s issues, which shows that he cares about their well-being. He will be off to a good start when former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, my colleague, speak to the convention about why the Romney-Ryan ticket is right for women in this election.

Romney should highlight that, as governor, he enhanced the Massachusetts sex offender registry by permitting information and photos of high-level offenders to be posted online. He also signed legislation allowing the GPS tracking of domestic violence offenders to help keep their victims safe at home and at work. At least 18 states have adopted similar laws. Massachusetts also led the way in the number of women in top positions of government during his tenure as the state’s chief executive, including his lieutenant governor, chief of staff and numerous cabinet officials.

But beyond these actions, Romney must continue to center his attention on the most important issue for women: being able to support themselves and their families. And that means having a job. According to a recent Pew Research Center report, “Women represent the only group for whom employment growth has lagged behind population growth in the recovery.” Even for young women, job prospects remain bleak, as the unemployment rate for those ages 16 to 24 has climbed from 13.8 percent this spring to 16.2 percent in July.

The public is clamoring for the presidential candidates to offer solutions to the challenges that are going to determine our economic destiny. The current policies emanating from Washington have produced little hope and even fewer results, leaving us mired in the worst post-recession recovery in our nation’s history. This should be a winning conversation for Republicans, particularly given Romney’s background in the private sector.

Romney should underscore that he would protect crucial safety-net programs such as Medicare and Social Security, on which women disproportionately rely. In 2009, for instance, 56 percent of Medicare recipients were female, and 43 percent of women enrolled in Medicare were living at or near poverty, compared with 32 percent of men. Women also make up 57 percent of Social Security recipients and a stunning 68 percent of those 85 or older. The simple truth is that the life expectancy of women exceeds that of men by approximately five years, on average, so many women will depend on these programs longer. Being mindful of these facts in discussing these programs will help reassure female voters that our party understands their unique circumstances.

Republicans have demonstrated sensitivity to women’s issues in the past. In 1983, as a congresswoman from Maine’s 2nd District, I became concerned that the Republican Party seemed to be failing to connect with female voters. I organized a meeting at the White House between President Ronald Reagan and congressional Republican women on how we could mitigate our party’s gender gap by promoting legislation to fix inequities in federal law that adversely affected women, in areas such as child support and pension reform.

President George H.W. Bush made further inroads by nominating Bernadine Healy to be the first female director of the National Institutes of Health in 1991, the same year the agency launched the Women’s Health Initiative, which still provides critical data that challenges existing information on women’s health and allows us to make better, more informed decisions on matters of life and death.

And President George W. Bush strongly supported my proposal to make the child tax credit refundable in 2001 — a first-of-its-kind initiative — because he understood how this policy would help women and children, including single heads of households. The point is, past Republican presidents have heeded the voices of our nation’s women and acted accordingly, with lasting effects.

This is Romney’s threshold moment. He must demonstrate that he would follow the example of other Republican presidents in addressing issues important to women. He must speak concisely and directly about how he’s going to get our country moving again. Indeed, given the recent controversies, he must reach out to women to reassure them that he understands their reality and to show them that his agenda is in their best interest.

He has proved time and time again that he is the right man for the job when it comes to a turnaround — and that is precisely what our party and our nation require.

outlook@washpost.com

Olympia J. Snowe is a Republican senator from Maine. She is retiring in January after 18 years in the Senate.

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