Does the `W' really stand for women?

Posted: Thursday, August 03, 2000

The placards pop up all across the massive convention floor like flashcards for a remedial reading course:

``W Stands for Women.''

The Republicans have gone back to basics in this warm, alphabet soup of a convention. They are still in recovery from conventions past when women were scared off by one authoritarian male figure after another - B Stands for Buchanan, T stands for Testosterone.

So Philadelphia has become their literacy test and the Republicans have passed. They're counting on a new bilingualism - the estrogen-laced language of a compassionate conservatism - to woo women.

Not surprisingly for this party on a learning curve, the big crossover issue is education. It's No. 1 on the delegates' dance cards. It's the issue W claims as his own.

Indeed in her debut speech, W's wife Laura listed among his academic credentials that he read ``Hop on Pop'' to the twins and that he sleeps with a teacher every night. But W's also studied the female-friendly text in a way that must rankle Clinton Democrats who, uh, wrote the book on this strategy.

First of all, W is offering himself up as a family man - and not just a son. Four long pre-Lewinsky years ago, Bill Clinton ran on a ``dad'' ticket. But this week, Laura one-upped the president by putting her husband on the granddad ticket. ``One day, God willing, George will be a fabulous grandfather,'' she told the convention, adding that ``in the meantime,'' while he was waiting, heck, he'd be president.

The fine print of the GOP platform is nowhere nearly as friendly as the patter. The same old abortion plank is back. They are still promising to prosecute doctors but ``not to be punitive towards those for whose difficult situation we have only compassion.'' Only compassion is right. They've stopped trying to dismantle the Education Department, but on the sex education plank, well, A stands for Abstinence.

But if W Stands for Women, and W has learned women's ways of talking, the big question is not just whether a compassionate conservative is an oxymoron but whether compassion is enough.

Remember Deborah Tannen's description of male-female conversations in ``You Just Don't Understand.'' Women don't want their husbands to solve their problems, she wrote, but to listen.

Well, on the designated ``children's night,'' kids of all colors and classes and problems were paraded across the stage. Every program they represented was privately funded, no government needed. The subtext? All a president needs do is understand and cheerlead the private sector.

On Tuesday, the bipartisan polling team of Democrat Celinda Lake and Republican Linda DiVall offered up the latest findings from a variety of women's focus groups conducted for Lifetime TV and the Center for Policy Alternatives. The women's voices were nowhere nearly as upbeat as the delegates here. They used words like ``frustrated'' and ``uneasy.'' They were frank about not profiting from the economic upturn or the rise of technology.

Their big worry? What if this is as good as it gets? Their big issue? T stands for Time Crunch.

In candid, outspoken conversations, women were focused on taking care of kids and parents both now and in the future. They were worried about the values of their children and the growing divide between rich and poor.

But these women didn't automatically make a connection between the problems of their lives and politics, let alone politicians. They were more likely to imagine what it would be like to work on their own or in a female-owned company or a female-friendly environment.

Women's discontent won't necessarily redound to either party in this era of diminishing differences and vanishing voters. Clinton too declared that the era of big government is over. As for rhetoric, it won't be enough for Gore to simply echo Bush's echo of Clinton.

Here, the GOP is betting that women will resonate to politicians who hear and play back their concerns. But at some point in the best of relationships, you want a guy who doesn't just share your feelings. You want one who pitches in to share the dishes.

The flashcards make an impressive show, but so far W Stands Still for Women.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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