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How the White House and Democrats stepped on their own equal pay message

This week, the White House and Democrats had a clear strategy.  Spend the week talking about equal pay and the gender wage gap, put Republicans on the defensive (a bonus would be if a Republican said something stupid) and then use the momentum and the talking points that emerged to frame the debate during the upcoming recess.

In short, this week was set to be the kick-off for Democrats’ midterm messaging, which at its core is all about finding issues that resonate on an emotional and economic level with the so-called Obama coalition, particularly single women.

This sounds simple enough, right?  Especially given that Democrats have mastered their turnout efforts when it comes to single women, who voted for Obama over GOP nominee Mitt Romney, 67 percent to 31 percent.

Well, things haven’t turned out so well for the Democrats and the White House, which has in the past been criticized for being a “boys club.”

The messaging started Tuesday in the early afternoon at the White House with Obama citing the 77 cents on the dollar figure that has become a convenient political cudgel, but has in fact been widely disputed, even by his own Labor Department.

Flanked by a diverse array of women, including Lilly Ledbetter, Obama signed an executive order that lifts the veil of “pay secrecy” from the federal contractor workforce, ensuring that federal contract employees don’t face retaliation if they share salary information.

Obama hammered Republicans for “gumming up the works” when it comes to closing the gender wage gap.

But the real “gumming up” came when White House press secretary faced a second day of questioning Tuesday afternoon about the White House’s own gender pay gap.  According to an American Enterprise Institute study, women in the White House earn 88 percent of what men earn.

Here’s where it got tricky and will likely stay tricky for the White House and Democrats trying to make the equal pay argument:

If the 77 cents on the dollar figure is evidence of discrimination outside the workforce, isn’t the 88 cents on the dollar figure also evidence of discrimination in the White House?

Carney, as well as Cecelia Munoz the Director of the Domestic Policy Council, insist that the White House should be lauded for having a figure that is higher than the national average, though well over half the states, including Texas (79 cents) and New York (84 cents), are either at or above the 77 cents figure, according to a report by the American Association of University Women.  The White House also casts itself as a model of transparency, which is what the Paycheck Fairness Act would mandate for other employers.  Yet, it will be hard for the White House and Democrats to maintain the bully pulpit on this, given their own record, where, according to Munoz in an interview on MSNBC’s “All In With Chris Hayes,” women are “over-represented in entry level positions” in the White House.

Women in the same job as men in the White House do earn the same thing, yet why aren’t there more senior level women in the White House? It’s a question that has dogged this White House for some time, and is again at the forefront and finds administration officials now walking a bit of a tight rope as they try to draw a bright line with Republicans on this issue.

And now Democrats are walking that same tight rope.

Complicating matters for Democrats even further is that Republicans are on the offense on this issue now, conceding that there is gender discrimination, and offering their own ideas about what to do about it, namely banning retaliation against employees who disclose their own salaries. It doesn’t go as far as the Paycheck Fairness Act, but it’s a start, and a sea change from where Republicans were when this week started, and means the Democrats won’t be able to truthfully argue that the GOP doesn’t want to address this issue at all.

For now, the White House is trying to carve out a narrow argument which says more transparency means less discrimination….even though transparency at the White House still finds a 12 cents pay gap.

To illustrate their argument, the White House sent out a shareable graphic, which explains what they are trying to do on equal pay.

It pictures two women, one in a pink dress carrying a handbag, the other in an orange dress, and both are wearing oh-so-practical stilettos. This is exactly what working women wear to work every day, right?  All those women who are lawyers, and doctors, and cashiers, and investment bankers, and biochemists, and nursing assistants and architects and engineers and cashiers at the Piggly Wiggly?  Perhaps this is why Obama was so focused on dry-cleaning bills at the White House signing ceremony? This is just not great messaging or symbolism for a White House that wants to also focus on women in minimum wage jobs.  It screams “Sex and the City,” not “9 to 5.”

A vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act is expected Wednesday and all expectations are that it will fail. Going into the week, Democrats looked at a vote as a lose-win situation — the vote would fail, but Republicans would be on record voting against the bill, which would be a win for Democrats.  But that doesn’t look like what’s going to happen.

Instead, with the White House’s help and because a coalition of Republican women offered their own amendments that look similar to what President Obama signed into law, the Democrats don’t have a straight or even a new argument.  But the Republicans do, and it starts with what women in the White House make and ends with their own proposals. The White House and Democrats were hoping for bold strokes. They got nuance and muddy pastels.  And nuance is always a hard sell in politics.