Mitt Romney has been pummeled with his own binders — you know the ones — for what already seems like days now, and things just keep getting worse for the Fix-It-Up Chappie: there were zero women partners at Bain Capital during Romney’s years there. And as it turns out, those were preexisting “binders full of women” he drew on when hiring as governor of Massachusetts. (Though I’m not sure why it matters whether Mitt came to the binders or the binders came to Mitt; he could just as easily have said, “Keep your stinkin’ binders, mesdames.”)  

His odd, and probably telling usage of the phrase “binders full of women” aside, though, I do have one thing to say in the candidate’s defense: He did hire a number of women for top positions when he was governor of Massachusetts, particularly during the first two years of his term, when 42 percent of his appointments to top positions were female, and he can rightly be proud of that record. Women at the highest levels of his administration included Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, chief of staff Beth Myers and his top policy adviser, Cindy Gillespie.

That’s in contrast to President Obama, in whose White House women earned a median salary of $60,000 in 2011, compared to the $71,000 median salary men there earned. Obama’s inner circle is not what you’d call packed with women, either, and surely that’s one reason Romney spoke about how he’d gone about hiring for senior positions when asked what he’d do for women as president.

Another reason his mind must’ve leapt to those darn binders, though, is that he has nothing to say about pay equity since he isn’t for it. Sure, he says he is, but then won’t say whether he would’ve signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and that can’t be out of modesty, can it? If he’d sign the thing, he’d say so. And if you don’t support the law that would make it feasible for women to sue employers who don’t compensate them equitably, then all you’ve got is Ann Romney standing on a stage yelling, “I love you, women!” — and good luck taking that to the bank and cashing it.

(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Neither Romney nor Obama struck me as particularly likable Tuesday night when both tried to browbeat and at one point march in tandem toward moderator Candy Crowley of CNN. (“Used to being interrupted,” the president told her mournfully at one point.) And I found Obama’s answer on why we can’t get it together to ban assault weapons intentionally and infuriatingly smoke-filled. 

But Romney’s bottom-of-both-barrels moment was his answer on that same subject: First, he said such weapons are already illegal; they aren’t. Then he suggested that assault rifles don’t kill people; single moms whose parenting leads nowhere kill people — or at least I think that’s what he said: “I believe if we do a better job in education, we’ll give people the hope and opportunity they deserve and perhaps less violence from that. But let me mention another thing. And that is parents. We need moms and dads helping to raise kids. Wherever possible the — the benefit of having two parents in the home, and that’s not always possible. A lot of great single moms, single dads. But gosh, to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone, that’s a great idea. … So we can make changes in the way our culture works to help bring people away from violence and give them opportunity, and bring them in the American system.” Governor, we also need an assault-weapons ban.

What’s got to be panicking Team Obama, though, is that Romney actually seems to have closed the gender gap — a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted last week shows him within one point of Obama among likely women voters, 48 to 49. That’s quite a feat, especially given that the president had been ahead with women voters by 18 at one point. We’ll see, of course, whether Tuesday night’s performance will lead to a post-binder rebound among women, or whether that first debate punctured something that can’t be reconstructed.

My own view is that the tax plan Romney can’t explain won’t help either women or men who are not top earners. Yet today, Team Obama’s pitch to women is more of the same, sprinkled with some binder jokes. Obama’s ads, surrogates and spinners still reflect the conviction they can win with women, who are almost evenly divided on abortion rights — by tripling and quadrupling down on that one issue. Another day, another press call with Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards. And if the president loses women, his team will doubtless conclude that they just didn’t talk about choice enough; what else could it possibly be?


Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors the paper’s ‘She the People’ blog. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.