Election 2012: Of human binders

Romney's "binders full of women" comment inspired hundreds of memes, but it also brought up serious issues for women in this presidential election.

LEXINGTON, Va. — Okay, so we’ve all had a good chuckle over Mitt Romney’s latest “inartful” comment.

The Republican challenger’s statement at the debate Tuesday night that he had “whole binders full of women” brought to him when he was making his appointments as governor of Massachusetts probably did not deserve all the attention that it got.

Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr — social media exploded over the issue.

Jon Stewart, that master of hilarious late-night political assassination, could not resist putting in his two cents:

“Hey, Binder of Women, Book of Broads, Notebook of Nipples, whatever,” he said in his program Wednesday night.

Fact-checkers jumped all over the former Massachusetts governor. It seemed that the binders in question were the initiative of the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus, not the Romney administration. The Washington Post saddled Romney with “Two Pinocchios” for his comment.

But like Romney’s threat to Big Bird in the first debate, there was a whole lot more smoke than fire in his choice of words.

The Barack Obama camp, though, quickly sought to fan the flames sparked in the debate at Hofstra University, in Long Island, New York.

In a campaign stop in Iowa, the president made clear that "We don't have to collect a bunch of binders to find qualified, talented, driven young women.”

Obama was hoping to capitalize on his opponent’s clumsy rhetoric to regain some of the ground he has recently lost with women voters.

As of mid-September, the president enjoyed an 18-point advantage over Romney with likely female voters; after the first debate, that lead dwindled to a statistical tie. 

While the silliness over the “binders” made for great political theater, it was not really the most upsetting thing that Romney had to say on Tuesday night, judging by the (admittedly liberal) group with whom I was watching the debate.

Both men and women gasped audibly when Romney said, “We're going to have to have employers in the new economy, in the economy I'm going to bring to play, that are going to be so anxious to get good workers they're going to be anxious to hire women.”

“So anxious that they would hire even women?” said one incensed debate watcher.

Others objected to Romney’s attempt to soothe women by saying they could have flexible hours to get home and make dinner for their kids, finding it patronizing and patriarchal (full debate transcript here).

This is, however, a reality, and CNN’s tracking showed that women undecided voters watching the debate reacted positively to that remark.

But there are issues at stake beyond who cooks dinner.

During the debate, Obama tried his best to paint Romney as a foe of contraception and abortion, referring repeatedly to Romney’s plans to defund Planned Parenthood.

Romney resisted taking the bait, but his campaign promptly released a new ad that insisted that the governor “did not oppose contraception at all” and would allow abortion “in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother.”

The Obama camp fired back with a new ad reminding voters that Romney has said he would ban all abortions.

This is the crux of the “war on women” that Democrats allege is being waged by the Republican Party.

The escalating campaign spat over abortion came just as Gallup released a new poll of women in swing states finding a plurality of female registered voters (39 percent) said abortion is the most important issue for them, followed by jobs, health care, the economy, and equal rights. However, the poll does not specify whether respondents believed the right to choose should be upheld or scrapped.

One Hofstra University professor recalled a time before the 1973 Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade that made abortion legal throughout the United States.

“No one wants to go back to the old days,” said the professor. 

“I went to college in Texas in the early '70s, before Roe v. Wade. Abortion was legal only in New York State at that time. Every Friday there was a Braniff Air flight that went to New York City, and it was always full of young women. We called it ‘the abortion run.’”

Romney has gone back and forth on abortion several times in his career, from professing to be pro-choice to effectively pro-life to becoming less categorical recently.

He is on record as saying he would like to see the Supreme Court reverse Roe v. Wade, and, if he were to become president, he would most likely be in a position to make that happen.

Several Supreme Court justices are nearing retirement age; Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for one, is 79 years old. The next president will probably have the chance to appoint at least one judge.

The court is now evenly split between conservatives and liberals, with Justice Anthony Kennedy often supplying the “swing vote.” The choice of a new judge will certainly have a profound affect on the course of American jurisprudence for the foreseeable future.

When pressed Thursday night by CNN host Erin Burnett, Romney campaign adviser Barbara Comstock spoke around the question of whether the Republican nominee would make an appointment to help repeal the landmark abortion ruling.

This issue did not seem to be prime on the minds of young female voters at Hofstra University.

For one thing, students are much less politically engaged these days, according to James Foote, an actor who specializes in playing Theodore Roosevelt. Wandering around Hofstra University on the day of the debate in full Rooseveltian garb, the actor reminisced about his trip to the same university four years ago.

“There was so much enthusiasm at that time,” he said. “They were all supporting Obama. Now they seem more worried about the economy.”

This was certainly true of Ariel Adrian, a senior majoring in education who is planning on voting for Romney.

“Of course I am concerned about women’s issues,” she said. “But we have other things to think about right now.”

See GlobalPost's in-depth series: US election — What if the world could vote?