Commentary: When sound bites bite back

The Rock Hill HeraldApril 29, 2012 

The trouble with sound bites is that they have a habit of biting the one who uttered them in the you-know-what.

This was illustrated recently after Hilary Rosen, a political strategist, criticized Mitt Romney, heir apparent to the GOP presidential nomination, saying his wife had “never worked a day in her life.”

Ann Romney’s response to that gibe went viral, and the candidate’s spin machine denounced Rosen for denigrating motherhood. What could be nobler than women choosing to stay home to rear their bairns, keeping the hearth fires lit while husbands earned the daily bread?

The White House couldn’t disown Rosen fast enough. She wasn’t part of the Obama team, we were told. Indeed, no Democrat claimed the woman as one of their own.

The worm began to turn a few days later as a story circulated that Ann Romney’s spouse once said insensitive things about women who stayed out the workforce.

As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney enthusiastically endorsed a plan backed by President Bill Clinton that limited the eligibility of single mothers to draw welfare payments. Romney went so far as to say he wanted to give those women a chance to learn the value of work.

Critics had a field day, insinuating that the presidential contender who placed his wife’s domestic duties on a pedestal devalued those same endeavors when performed by single mothers struggling in poverty.

That’s not what Gov. Romney said, of course, and it certainly wasn’t what he intended to say. Given that the welfare “reform” bill had the backing of a Democratic president and passed with bipartisan support, is it fair to single out Romney for seeking ways to break the cycle of welfare dependency?

By limiting the number of years recipients could draw welfare and by forcing them to seek education or training that might lead to a job, it was argued, a “tough love” approach would help them become self-supporting. In short, it was sold as an attempt to codify that truism about the advantages of teaching a man to fish instead of handing him a mackerel, already filleted.

Recent studies indicate that many women are worse off in the current economic climate than they would have been under the previous welfare system. The point stands, nevertheless, that if Romney was an insensitive brute for wanting to kick single moms off the federal dole, at least he wasn’t alone.

Of course, if we’re going to give Gov. Romney the benefit of the doubt when it comes to interpreting sound bites, fairness dictates that Ms. Rosen be granted similar courtesy. A careful reading of the conversation that got her into hot water makes clear that Ms. Rosen’s barb wasn’t meant to demean stay-at-home mothers. However unfortunate her choice of words, Rosen was responding to a remark by Mitt Romney that he judged women’s political opinions on what he was told by Mrs. Romney.

If a would-be president says he relies on his wife to gauge how American women think about issues, then it makes sense for his opponents to challenge her expertise on those issues.

It hardly seems beyond the pale to suggest that a woman who owns a “couple of Cadillacs” and generally lives in luxury’s lap may not be the best weather vane on women’s issues.

So who won this battle in the war on spin?

We might have to wait until Nov. 7 to answer that question, but the losers already are clear – voters would prefer an informed debate on women’s issues to the incessant stream of sound bites, distortions and propaganda that passes for political discussion these days.

Questions that might arise in such discussion might include:

How has welfare reform affected women and families?

What is the optimum length for maternity leave, and why do mothers and fathers in some other advanced countries enjoy more time off?

What role should government play in early-childhood development?

Does the community have an interest in promoting healthy lifestyles for children?

Unfortunately, none of the answers can be summed up in a sound bite, which is why they won’t come up on the campaign trail.

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