A Potemkin convention

August 19, 1996|By Ellen Goodman

SAN DIEGO -- Who said you couldn't teach an old party new tricks? This Grand Old Party has been on a steep learning curve since 1992.

Remember the two Pats -- Robertson and Buchanan -- ranting about "radical feminism" all over Houston. The f-word was nowhere to be heard in this quality-controlled hall.

Remember when Marilyn Quayle said that "Most women do not wish to be liberated from their essential natures as women. Most of us love being mothers or wives"? Well, Marilyn was silent and the party hierarchy was enforcing a public truce in the political mommy wars.

Here and there, you could still find a few signs of the old Hate-Hillary speech. A bumper sticker reads "Life is a Hillary." A snide aside in George Bush's introduction of his first lady described Barbara as a "woman who unquestionably upheld the honor of the White House."

But in prime time, family values are no longer a bludgeon to hit over the heads of working mothers. Republicans are trying out a whole new courtship ritual to engage the women who recoiled from them in 1992.

Women only constituted a third of the delegates here. Pro-choice women are a scorned minority of a minority. The delegates were whiter, richer, and far righter than the party or public.

But at show time, the Republicans created an affirmative action TV program for women and moderates like Christie Whitman and Kay Bailey Hutchison and Susan Molinari. It's sort of like those model fronts the Russians put on dilapidated villages. A Potemkin convention.

What was real was the Republican recognition that there are no points for attacking "uppity women." Especially when one of them is the candidate's wife.

Congressmom Susan Molinari aimed her keynote address into the gender gap "I don't know a mom today who isn't being stretched to her limit trying to hold down a job while trying to hold down the fort, too. And how many times have we said to ourselves, 'There just aren't enough hours in the day' and the truth is, there aren't."

The GOP of 1996 feels our pain. Further, they want us to believe that the party has a pain killer.

If the Republicans have their way, the fight for the women's vote this year won't be over roles of women but the role of government. It won't be about abortion. It will be about economics.

As Ms. Molinari put it, "Republicans can't promise you any more hours in a day, but we can help you spend more hours at home with your family." How? Not by legislating a shorter week, or extending family and medical leave, but by reducing taxes.

Susan Sweetser, a Vermont candidate for Congress, said "Women want to keep more of their paycheck." Susy Heintz of Michigan said "The top three problems facing families are taxes, taxes, taxes."

But with women-owned businesses the fastest growing part of the economy, with government cynicism the fastest growing sentiment, the Dole folks are betting they can win the allegiance of working women with the promise to reduce the role of government in everyday life. With the single, ironic, exception of the bedroom.

Ellen Goodman writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 8/19/96

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