Everybody will be writing about how a different President Barack Obama came out Tuesday night from the one we saw in the first debate. True enough. On Tuesday night, Obama took the stage and fought for his presidency: strong, assertive, intense, defending his record, criticizing his opponent, well-schooled on both of their records, a commander in chief in command.
He channeled some Vice President Joe Biden, telling Mitt Romney he was wrong. He managed to get the “47 percent” in as his closing (whew). He reminded everyone, repeatedly, about just how rich Romney is and how low his tax rate is. In short, he did what most people expected him to do the first time around.
And clearly, the president knew he had done well. Unlike last time, when Romney lingered in the afterglow and the president beat a hasty retreat, Obama was still shaking hands long after the network feeds were cut and the Romneys had exited the stage. Believe me, having stood behind those curtains, you don’t want your candidate to be the first to leave.
As for Romney, while the contrast between the first debate and this one was not as stark, and maybe some of that was the result of being held to a new standard against a real opponent, he seemed a lesser candidate. Yes, we know, you’ve been in the private sector so you must know how to do x and y, even if you’re not going to tell us. He attacked the president regarding when he said “act of terror” to the point that moderator Candy Crowley (hooray for Crowley, by the way) had to tell him he was wrong. He played games on assault weapons (he was against them in Massachusetts because the pro-gun people were against them there; whereas the National Rifle Association opposes bans) and access to contraception (sure, women should have access, and they do thanks to the Supreme Court, but the issue is whether employers can decide to exclude it from your health plan, which Romney supports). He attacked the president for not promoting an immigration reform plan that Romney and his party staunchly oppose.
I know, I could go on and on. But then, I’m one of those breathing a sigh of relief that Obama is back.
But the line I will always remember from this debate is not any of those. It’s about the binders.
Asked about pay equity for women, the president told the story of Lilly Ledbetter, the woman who was denied equal pay for equal work and was then told she couldn’t bring suit because she should have known earlier. For his turn, Romney told the story of picking his cabinet as governor of Massachusetts. “I had the chance to pull together a cabinet, and all the applicants seemed to be men,” Romney said. “And I went to my staff, and I said, ‘How come all the people for these jobs are all men?’ They said, ‘Well, these are the people that have the qualifications.’” So he asked the (men) to make “a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks?’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.”
I have been making “whole binders full of women” for more than three decades. I made them when I worked on the Senate Judiciary Committee and the issue was picking judges — in 1979. I made them when I joined the Harvard faculty and the issue was hiring faculty — in 1981. I made them when I was part of the “A Team”: the self-appointed group of activists determined to get a woman on the Democratic ticket in 1984. I made them in campaigns to ensure that there were senior women in every area, including in the campaign I ran in 1988. Catalyst, the national organization that promotes women to serve on corporate boards, has been making them since the 1980s.
How is it possible that we’re still talking — and not just talking, but boasting — about “whole binders full of women” in the 2012 election?
How can it be that a man with as much experience as Romney tells us he told his (presumably) all-male staff to go to women’s groups and was proud to discover that, yes, indeed, there were “whole binders full of qualified women.” Did he need binders to know that we were there, are there, in every area, with every skill set, with every level of experience, asking only to be treated fairly, as people?
He may discover just how many there are on Election Day.
— Bestselling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.