During the first presidential candidates debate, neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney mentioned anything related to equal pay, reproductive rights or paid family leave despite the fact that restricting women’s rights was the single most important priority for Congressional Republicans and women voters are an increasingly important, and diverse, demographic. In the second debate, at least one of these issues is almost certain to be discussed, but at this point in the campaign, does it even matter?
It matters in the short-term because Romney’s positions on choice, equal pay, contraception benefits and nearly every economic issue that matter to women seem to be in a constant state of flux, reliant on whoever his audience at the moment happens to be. Democrats need to make Romney pick a position and hold him to it, and the debate is an excellent opportunity to make that point. President Obama could take a cue from his tenacious Vice President and affirmatively make the case that women’s rights are not just important, they are fundamental to the health and success of the republic.
Even if President Obama does seize this opportunity to show the public Romney’s dangerous platform for women and families and what it means for the future of this country, the optics, and even some of the substance, are against the Obama administration here. For starters, this second debate is the more casual “town hall” style where chosen members of the audience ask the candidates pre-selected questions. That means no matter how an issue like abortion or equal pay comes up, it will not face the same kind of scrutiny or follow-up from the moderator as in traditional debates.
In this case, that could be especially significant since CNN’s Candy Crowley will be moderating the debate. The Romney camp has already gone public with its concerns. Crowley, a noted journalist who is not afraid to ask tough questions, will not be as accommodating as Jim Lehrer was during the first debate. But many of Crowley’s strengths will go under-utilized, if utilized at all, during this second debate. Town hall moderators mostly hold the mic and transition from audience member to audience member. While Crowley has indicated she will ask follow-up questions, the fact remains that if the Romney camp was looking for a way to contain a possibly tough questioner, they couldn’t have picked a better forum.
It will also be hard for the president to escape complaints that any attacks on Romney for his position on women’s rights is a response to complaints the president failed to take the issue seriously in the first debate. And I think that’s fair. It’s hard to escape feeling pandered too now that polls suggest a tightening of the race and after Vice President Joe Biden did such an excellent job showing how to make the case that women’s rights matter.
But all that shouldn’t stop the president from both pressing Romney on his Hawthornian vision of American society and reminding voters of the president’s own record in fighting for women and families not just in the debate, but every day from now until November 6th.
Photo from Emiko Hime via flickr.