Hilary Rosen, the Democratic strategist who has been savaged recently for targeting Ann Romney and supposedly maligning motherhood, was merely guilty of saying precisely the right thing in precisely the wrong way.
Mitt Romney is happy about what happened; he continues to milk the skirmish, especially in social media. Whittling Rosen's CNN remarks down to one errant phrase -- "his wife has never actually worked a day in her life" -- is good politics, because Romney needs to win over women voters, and what better way than to conflate Rosen's 11 words into a general Democratic indictment of all stay-at-home moms?
Woe to the TV talking head who fails to phrase things perfectly; the other side will use the words as a weapon. Such was Rosen's fate. That's too bad, because she said something important about the Republican candidate, about how out of touch he is with most American women's lives.
Romney recently told an audience that he relied on his wife to tell him What Women Want; in his words, "My wife has the occasion, as you know, to campaign on her own and also with me, and she reports to me regularly that the issue women care about most is the economy." And at a recent event, when asked about women voters, Romney said that he wished his wife were there to help him respond; as he explained, "She's going across the country and talking with women."
For starters, Romney makes it sound as if women are an obscure tribe whose needs can only be deciphered with a tribal expert's help.
Rosen's perceptive point was that Ann Romney, by dint of wealth and privilege, lacks the right credentials to be an expert.
This point is obvious from the full context of Rosen's remarks (the context that has been lost amid the noise): "His wife has actually never worked a day in her life. She's never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of women in this country are facing, in terms of 'How do we feed our kids? How do we send them to school? And why we worry about their future?'"
Exactly right. And if Rosen had phrased that first sentence as "His wife has never needed to work outside the home, in addition to raising her boys," her point would have been airtight.
By all accounts, Ann Romney is an admirable woman and a successful mother of five. But her family assets (three houses, her two Cadillacs) have cocooned her from the everyday stresses most other women endure. She could literally afford to choose full-time motherhood, but most mothers don't have that luxury; indeed, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that 66 percent of American moms juggle working and parenting -- and, among those jugglers, three out of four work full time.
At one point Ann Romney responded to Rosen by saying, "We need to respect choices that women make" -- implying, of course, that Rosen (a mother herself) had disrespected the women who choose the hard work of stay-at-home parenting -- but Ann Romney gave no indication that she understands the long-standing economic realities that sabotage choice. Her husband made $21 million in 2010; that same year, according to the Census Bureau, the median household income was $44,449. The household income of African-Americans was $32,068 -- a figure that would've been lower if not for the majority of moms who must work to survive.
And where's the proof that Ann Romney has successfully counseled her husband about these women's needs? He still wants to "get rid of" federal aid to Planned Parenthood, the health-screening group for millions of financially strapped working moms. He says virtually nothing about the pay inequities that plague working moms. He seems unaware that lots of new moms would love to get paid parental leave, but only half of U.S. employers offer it. If Ann Romney has talked to him about that issue, in her role as ambassador to Womanworld, there's no evidence that it made any difference.
Besides, what's most fascinating about Romney is his ability to give both sides of an issue, speaking from opposite sides of his mouth. His campaign has spent the last week defending the dignity and labor of stay-at-home moms -- yet Romney himself declared back in January that many stay-at-home moms were slackers who ought to be earning paychecks.
During an appearance, he said that mothers who get welfare should be forced to work outside the home. He said he has long wanted "to increase the work requirement. I said, for instance, that even if you have a child of 2 years of age, you need to go to work. And people said, 'Well, that's heartless' ... but I want the individuals to have the dignity of work."
OK, now I get it: If you're a rich mom like Ann Romney, you can choose the dignity of full-time parenting. But if you're a poor mom (the hired help, as it were), your sole option is "the dignity of work." Lest I make the mistake of uttering a poorly worded phrase, I'll just let the candidate's hypocrisy speak for itself.
Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to him at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at email@example.com; blog: http://www.dickpolman.blogspot.com.