Conventional political wisdom says that for a party to oppose a woman — or a women's issue — it's best to send out a female spokesperson.
But what if a party has no women (or virtually none of national prominence) in elective office? For today's Republican Party, we've been seeing the answer unfold in the weeks since President Barack Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court. If confirmed, she would be the first Hispanic and only the third female on the bench.
Republicans quickly began criticizing her as a throwback to an era of identity politics. Strategically, it made sense — that's a potentially resonant argument in a country that likes to think of itself as post-racial, and at least a generation beyond sexism. But early polls showed that the right was getting nowhere, and their arguments against Sotomayor might even be backfiring.
By this past weekend, the influential Washington beltway publication National Journal proclaimed that the nomination debate had placed the "GOP on defense," an analysis that has been echoed elsewhere. One possible reason for the failure: the only Republicans making the case were white men.
In essence, the GOP has practically no prominent women or people of color to state their ideological case. Of the seven Republicans booked for the five major Sunday politics-oriented TV shows this past weekend, only one was a woman: Texas senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. In fact, Hutchison — who is expected to resign her Senate post this fall, leaving Washington to focus on a gubernatorial campaign — is the only Republican woman in elected office who has appeared on Meet the Press in 2009. Furthermore, of the seven Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who will get a chance to question Sotomayor when she comes to Capitol Hill for her confirmation hearing, all are white men.
The Republican Party has become so easily stereotyped as the party of middle-aged white men, the true depth of its problem has largely escaped notice. Twenty years ago, Republican women in elected office were nearly as numerous as Democrats. Today, the gap is very large, and growing. Amazingly, the party appears to be making no effort to address the issue, says Laurel Elder, associate political-science professor at upstate New York's Hartwick College, who studies the emergent "partisan gap" in women officeholders. Says Elder: "It's shocking to me that they're not in crisis mode."
The dwindling few
Some in the Republican Party are not oblivious to the advantages of having female faces to put forward. That was apparent in the selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain's vice-presidential candidate.
George W. Bush, who placed a number of women in key positions in his administration, also made sure to get them out to talk shows and news conferences. Their ranks included Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters, and Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman. Those women were so commonly seen defending Republican policy that they helped the party obscure the lack of Republican women in Congress doing the same.
Now, as the Bush team has left town and Palin has returned to the obscurity of far-off Alaska, the GOP's lack of female faces has been exposed. Consider that, since 2003, the last 16 newly elected Republican US senators have all been men. In the lower chamber, others have departed, leaving a mere 17 Republican women in the 435-member US House of Representatives.
Those few Republican women who do hold notable elected offices are not getting nearly the amount of public face time as men in the party, either. In part, that's because they are mostly from small, out-of-the-way states: aside from Hutchison, they come from Alaska (Palin; Senator Lisa Murkowski), Maine (Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins), Hawaii (Governor Linda Lingle), Arizona (Governor Jan Brewer), and Connecticut (Governor Jodi Rell).
But there's another problem: most of those women are far too moderate to fit in with the conservatives now in power. That has certainly kept Maine's two senators, Snowe and Collins, from becoming familiar faces on TV's talk-show landscape, while their less experienced, less accomplished, but more hard-line colleagues, such as John Thune, Jim DeMint, and Jon Ensign (from South Dakota, South Carolina, and Nevada, respectively), make the regular rounds.
The increasingly hard-line GOP could not, for instance, even hope to send out any of its four female senators earlier this year to make the public argument against the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which makes it easier for women to challenge discriminatory payment — because all four broke with the party to vote for the bill. (The only other Republican to do so was Arlen Specter, who has since become a Democrat.)
"It's the party's choice that Jodi Rell, Olympia Snowe, and Susan Collins are not national figures," says Jennifer Lawless, associate political-science professor at Brown University. "They can't be trotted out by a party that is trying to play to their conservative base."