30 January 2012
Gingrich and the gender gap
The gender gap dividing the Republican and Democratic parties is well known. Women simply don't go for the Republican party as much as men do. Even if a majority of women defined by race or religion favors Republicans, they do so in smaller numbers than their male counterparts. These facts are blamed on the GOP's perceived hostility to feminism and the patriarchal vibe it often gives off -- the sense that it is the "daddy party" opposed to the Democratic "nanny state." It might be presumed that Republican women would vote like Republican men, but the current presidential primary campaign reveals a gender gap reproducing itself within the party. Predictably enough, Newt Gingrich is the polarizing figure. Two polls have recently been cited, one showing Mitt Romney comfortably ahead of Gingrich among Florida men but way ahead among the state's Republican women, the other showing the two front-runners in a dead-heat among men but Romney once again way ahead with women. On a micro level, you see it among celebrity women. While Sarah Palin favors Gingrich, Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin have joined the punditocracy attack on the former Speaker, Coulter on behalf of Romney, Malkin on behalf of Santorum. But that stat can be explained in the now-familiar way: as opinionators or think-tankers, Coulter and Malkin probably had to deal with Gingrich while he had power in Washington, while Palin observed his Speakership, if at all, from the isolation of Alaska. Palin is pushing Gingrich as the outsider, a notion at which Coulter and Malkin rightly scoff -- but do rank-and-file Republican women in Florida care whether Gingrich was or is an insider? The gender gap suggests that something else matters more. Since these women are probably not self-styled feminists, and Gingrich has not, to my knowledge, made a habit of disparaging career women, the simplest explanation is most likely a moral objection among traditionally conservative women to Newt's wanton ways as a husband. Compared to the pious Santorum and the bland Romney, Gingrich must look like a Clintonian demon of lust to the custodians of domesticity and the sanctity of the home. Palin, of course, yields to no one as a moralist, but insists that Gingrich be forgiven his trespasses in our hour of need for a fire-breathing outsider to purge Washington. It looks likely, however, that many women in Florida, and not a few men, are actually behaving consistently. If Bill Clinton's trustworthiness was suspect because of his affairs, so is Gingrich's for his ruined marriages. Gingrich might remind his audiences that, to this day, the only divorcee President in American history was Ronald Reagan, but that hero was elected in the pre-Clinton era, before the "politics of personal destruction," and with his divorce nearly thirty years in the past by 1980. That's not to say that divorce couldn't ruin a politician before Reagan; it may well have kept Nelson Rockefeller from becoming President, or even the Republican nominee, during the 1960s. But to the extent that Reagan's personal history troubled Republicans or swing voters, they overlooked it, either in their eagerness to be rid of Jimmy Carter or because Reagan projected some integrity that transcended his original failure as a spouse. Gingrich probably fancies himself Reagan's truest heir, but the fact that Reagan's divorce is but a footnote to his history, while Gingrich's marital troubles apparently remain a major obstacle to his advancement, should tell Gingrich and us that Reagan, like him or not, had something else going for him that Gingrich clearly doesn't.