White House officials concerned about President Reagan and the "gender gap" say it cuts both ways: the president is grabbing male votes from the Democratic Party.
"It's the reverse image of the gender gap that's being talked about now," said a senior White House official who attended a recent meeting on the issue called by deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver.
"It's the fact that Ronald Reagan is very popular among men and he is taking the male vote away from the Democrats," the official said. "Men like Ronald Reagan and the Democrats know that's a problem for them. We'd like to shift the public debate from the Republican gender gap to the Democratic gender gap."
The Republican gender gap that worries White House officials is the showing in polls that women, the largest voting bloc in the electorate for the first time, support the president less than men do. One result is that the White House has tried to focus on women's issues.
The Democratic response to the suggestion of a gender gap of their own is that Republicans are desperate to solve a problem that threatens Reagan's reelection chances if he decides to run next year.
"I have the unworthy impulse to say I'm horrified and turn around and laugh," said Ann Lewis, political director of the Democratic National Committee. "What they're doing is saying, since we've got ourselves a lemon let's make lemonade. But in '84 that lemonade ain't going to sell."
Lewis added that women represent the majority of voters for the first time. She said that black men, Hispanic men, blue-collar and ethnic males--members of voting blocs increasingly alienated from the Reagan administration, according to polls--are a substantial part of the male voters that Reagan's aides are claiming as his base of male support.
"You cannot build a winning election-year coalition on a subset of the minority of the voters: white-collar, white males," Lewis said. "Besides, women have become base-line Democrats and their support does not fluctuate. As the economy goes up and down, men go up and down, from supporting Reagan to opposing him."
Data from Washington Post-ABC News polls support Lewis' argument. Although Reagan's approval rating has stayed in the mid-40 percent range among women for the last two years, since January, 1982, his approval rating among men has gone from the mid-50 percent range to as high as 61 percent in April, 1982, only to drop to as low as 47 percent last January. In May, male approval of Reagan's job performance was 60 percent compared with 47 percent for women.
However, Betty Heitman, co-chairman of the Republican National Committee, said she believes that the higher level of male support for Reagan can be used to demonstrate the president's strong points to women and to counteract attacks by "liberal women's groups."
"The Democrats have a terrible gender gap," she said. "The majority of men in the country by far support the president and they support him for reasons that we need to communicate to women. Men have been out in the work force longer and they realize that Democrats will promise anything and then not produce. They don't believe the Democrats . . . . The men appreciate that Reagan is a strong leader and understand the need for military spending. They are skeptical of the Democrats' empty promises to keep the peace."
White House aides, who have concluded that the 1984 election will turn on the issue of the economy, feel that women have been slow to appreciate Reagan's success in lowering the inflation rate and to sense the strength of the recovery.
Among the legislative initiatives being considered by the Deaver group are efforts in economic areas. The most likely proposals are efforts to change pension laws to have spouses sign pension plan agreements. In case of divorces or early deaths, that would prevent the spouse from being closed off from the worker's pension benefits.
Also high on the list are proposals to interest more businesses in starting voluntary day-care programs while changing the law to make employe contributions tax-free. The administration is funding a test program in four cities to determine whether women will use government-run referral services for day-care.
The White House also is considering recommendations for attracting more women into high-level government posts. Edwin L. Harper, a Reagan domestic policy adviser, said a recent White House analysis shows that although 14 percent of presidential appointees are women, only 5 percent of top career government employes are women.
While the White House proposals have been attacked as "largely cosmetic" by Democrats such as Rep. Patricia Schroeder (Colo.), Republicans such as Rep. Claudine Schneider (R.I.) and Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (Kan.) said they now believe that the White House is genuinely interested in overcoming the gender gap.
"I think they are sincere because they've seen the polls and they saw what happened in San Antonio," said Kassebaum, referring to a meeting of the National Women's Political Caucus where the administration was criticized on women's issues.