The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The ‘war on women’ theme has helped elect Democrats. But Debbie Wasserman Schultz may have taken it too far.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee, went too far in her comments about Republican Governor Scott Walker and women’s issues. (Associated Press)

As political strategies go, the Democrats’ “war on women” attacks on Republicans have been quite effective, helping to exploit a gender gap that has historically dogged the GOP.  And for their part, Republicans have  often been easy marks, stumbling into awkward comments about rape, abortion, birth control and violence against women.

But now, Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz has done the same thing.

At a roundtable on women’s issues in Milwaukee, Wasserman Schultz hammered Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), who is running in a tight race against Mary Burke, on women’s issues.

“Scott Walker has given women the back of his hand. I know that is stark. I know that is direct. But that is reality,” she said, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She went on to detail Walker’s record on pay issues.

“What Republican tea party extremists like Scott Walker are doing is they are grabbing us by the hair and pulling us back,” she said. “It is not going to happen on our watch.”

Wasserman Schultz is right. Her comments are stark and they are direct.

But, no, it isn’t reality to suggest that Walker, whatever his record on minimum wage or abortion, is somehow akin to an abuser or a cave man.

In 2012, President Obama liked to say that GOP policies on women were a throwback to the “Mad Men” era, a clever pop culture reference that other Democrats and their allies picked up on.  They aren’t likely to do the same with Wasserman Schultz’s comments, which could hurt Burke. Her campaign distanced itself from the remarks.

Polls show the race essentially tied, with Burke leading among women, 56 percent to 38 percent.

The DNC went on immediate clean-up duty over Wasserman Schultz’s comments.

Lily Adams, deputy communications director for the DNC said in a statement reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that “domestic violence is an incredibly serious issue, and the congresswoman was by no means belittling the very real pain survivors experience.”

With women voters so central to November, several Democrats, particularly women, are running on issues such as domestic violence and sexual abuse.  In Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes has challenged Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) on his vote against the tougher, Democratic version of the Violence Against Women’s Act.  State Sen. Wendy Davis (D), a long-shot running for Texas governor against Republican Greg Abbott, chose a brutal rape and a court case as the subject for her first campaign commercial. And in Massachusetts, Martha Coakley’s first ad says she has a record of standing up for “women and children victimized by abuse.”

The strategy is twofold. It frames the candidates as both tough on crime and  as champions and defenders of women.  And women candidates running against men can possibly put their opponents on the defensive. They all remember former Republican congressman Todd Akin’s reference to “legitimate rape” in his unsuccessful 2012 Senate race

But even as Republicans still struggle to close the gender gap, a 2014 version of Todd Akin has not emerged from the GOP. But Democrats will try to conjure one, with some of their ads seeming to implicitly suggest that Republican men are soft on domestic violence and rape. Many observers think Wasserman Schultz’s remarks on Walker are an unfortunate outgrowth of that strategy, the very bottom of a slippery slope, possibly alienating the very voters that Democrats so badly need to energize headed into November.