MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, we will hear the latest entry in our Muses and Metaphor series for National Poetry Month. Those are our tweet-length poems. We'll have another one in just a few minutes.
But first, we turn to election news and a controversy that's keeping the battle for women voters in the spotlight. Polls show women voters strongly favor President Barack Obama over presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
Many observers say that Romney's statements about reproductive rights during his primary fight have fed that gender gap, but now comments from democratic strategist Hilary Rosen have opened up a new front in the battle for women voters. She was on CNN Wednesday night when she said this.
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HILARY ROSEN: What you have is Mitt Romney running around the country saying, well, you know, my wife tells me that what women really care about are economic issues and when I listen to my wife, that's what I'm hearing. Guess what? His wife has actually never worked a day in her life.
MARTIN: Now, Hilary Rosen later apologized for her choice of words, but that hasn't stopped the controversy, as many Republicans now cite this as proof that the Democrats don't respect stay-at-home moms.
We wanted to ask if this will have an impact on the vote and - particularly of women, in November. We wanted to talk about this with Mary Kate Cary. She's a blogger and columnist for U.S. News and World Report. She's also a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. Also with us is Connie Schultz. She won the Pulitzer Prize as a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She's now a nationally syndicated columnist and she also knows a bit about this from a different side of it. Her husband is Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio.
Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
MARY KATE CARY: Great to be here.
CONNIE SCHULTZ: Thanks for the invitation.
MARTIN: So, Connie, I'm going to start with you because it's Democrats with hoof in mouth or foot in mouth disease this week. And Hilary Rosen has apologized. First Lady Michelle Obama tweeted her support for Ann Romney, and the president himself felt a need to talk about it on Thursday. Here he is.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Here's what I know, that there's no tougher job than being a mom, and you know, when I think about what Michelle had to do, when I think about my own mom, a single mother raising me and my sister - that's work.
MARTIN: So Connie Schultz, is this a bruise, a knife wound? What is it? And how do you think that the president on down are handling this to this point?
SCHULTZ: I think the problem here was the messenger. I was thinking of this driving in this morning to the studio. If this had been a mother working as a waitress in downtown Cleveland, for example, who said Ann Romney's never worked a day in her life, I think most women across the country would have nodded and said, OK, yeah, I hear that. Because context was everything.
Instead, it was a high profile Democrat who should have known better, and I wish she had apologized sooner. I also wish the administration hadn't immediately had men piling on on her. I thought that was bad form.
But I don't think this was - if anybody thinks this is going to whittle away at the president's big lead with women, I just think that's delusional because women are supporting the president for a reason, and they're not that stupid. They're not going to let one ill-advised comment derail their support for the president. I just don't see that happening.
I mean, you look at Mitt Romney, it begins and ends for a lot of women with he once supported Planned Parenthood and now he wants to defund it, and a lot of women see that as - so you once supported women and now you don't support women. And I don't see how he recovers from that.
MARTIN: Mary Kate?
CARY: Well, I think I disagree with Connie. This does hurt the Democrats and the reason that I think that is how quickly we saw the president, the vice president, the first lady, the head of the DNC, the senior campaign management, really lower the boom on Hilary Rosen so quickly, and that said to me, they see how volatile the women's vote is.
MARTIN: But couldn't that be because Republicans who support Romney are ginning it up? I mean they had conference calls with their, you know, top women, you know, figures like, you know, top congressional women and, you know, all the blogs. The conservative blogs are sort of pushing this out as the war - the Democrats' war on women. I mean, isn't that what they're responding to? The professional class using this?
CARY: Yeah. I think there's a lot of that. They see an opening here. I think, though, in this day and age, this touched such a nerve because there are so many women making so many different choices. You know, in my life, for example, I've worked full time, I've worked part time, I've been a stay-at-home mom. I've got a desk in my house. You know, my sister's husband stays home for their family. There's all kinds of different ways people are making it work and so to criticize the choice really touched a nerve very quickly.
You know, three weeks ago, Olympia Snowe was saying that the contraception fight was a retro issue. Well, this seems even more retro to me. Like, times have changed and for a leading Democratic activist to say this, really, I think, took everybody aback.
MARTIN: Connie, what I was just going to say - if you're just joining us, we're talking with Mary Kate Cary of U.S. News and World Report and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and syndicated columnist Connie Schultz. Connie?
SCHULTZ: This was not an attack on stay-at-home mothers. I mean, I appreciate Mary Kate's personal narrative. We all have them as mothers. This was not an attack on stay-at-home moms. This was an unfortunate choice of words to talk about how removed people of privilege can be from those who are not, and that it's nice to have choices and that most mothers wish they had the choice of staying at home or going to work outside the home, but that's not the choice that's presented to most working mothers.
You know, I was a single mom for 10 years. I spent many night walking the house like a ghost in my own home because I was so worried about how to pay the bills. That doesn't qualify me to be a spokeswoman for every woman.
If we've proved anything since Sarah Palin's candidacy, it's that women are not a monolithic group, and women are smarter than this. I posted a number of links about this on Facebook. I have a public page to promote discussion and I was not alarmed but a little disappointed at times by how many women on the left were willing to just go after Ann Romney because of her wealth.
I've been meeting with a lot of wealthy women in the last few months who have dedicated their lives to volunteering and raising money for Planned Parenthood, for example.
Wealth in itself is not the crime, but you do have to have a sensitivity to your own privilege, and I think it's important to acknowledge your privilege.
MARTIN: Well, Mary Kate, what about that? I mean, let's just ask - let's just walk right up to the sensitive place on this, which is according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor force participation rate, the percentage of the population working or looking for work for all mothers with children under 18 was 70.8 percent in 2010. And according to another study by the census, compared with other moms, stay-at-home moms - this is from 2007 - were more likely to be younger, Hispanic and foreign-born, which is to say - and without a high school diploma. So...
CARY: Not all stay-at-home moms are wealthy.
MARTIN: Well, precisely. And so wasn't there sort of a grain of truth in what Hilary Rosen was saying, even though the way she said it was kind of ugly and demeaning?
CARY: Well, I think what she was touching on, in some ways, was not everybody has the choice, which is what Connie was just saying too. There are plenty of stay-at-home moms who would love to get back in the workforce, but the cost of the child care is so high that it makes the paycheck a wash. There's plenty of working women who would love to stay at home, but can't because they can't give up the paycheck.
So the challenge for Romney, I think - the opportunity and the challenge - is for him to be able to come forward and say we need the kind of economy where every woman can make the choice - can afford to make the choice - that is best for their family.
MARTIN: Connie, let me walk up to the sensitive place on your side of the aisle. I mean, doesn't this, though, bespeak sort of again kind of this elitism about people who are not part of your circle and sort of a willingness to dismiss people who aren't? Isn't that partly why this is a sensitive issue, is that it's this kind of - what do I want to call it - sort of a liberal snobbery, in a way, a sort of dismissiveness about people who just aren't part of your world?
SCHULTZ: I think it depends on which liberals you're talking to, because I come from the working class, and so a lot of my friends are still from the working class. A lot of my family is still in the working class. They got it - what she was saying.
You know, I think - it was interesting to listen to Mary Kate right now because if Romney is going to start talking about options for - she kept using the word choice. I'd really steer clear of that word because he has not embraced it in all its meanings for women, and that, again, I come back to that.
I think that's a losing battle for him unless he reverses his position - I don't see it coming - on Planned Parenthood and on a woman's right to reproductive choice.
MARTIN: I gave Connie the first word, so I want to give Mary Kate the last word on this one - and thank you both for coming. Mary Kate, final thought on this? Will we be talking about this a week from now?
CARY: Yeah. I think we will. Hilary Rosen just agreed to be on "Meet the Press" this weekend and I think this debate's going to keep right on going.
MARTIN: Mary Kate Cary is a blogger and columnist for U.S. News and World Report. She used to be a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. With us from WCPN in Cleveland, our member station, Connie Schultz. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her work as a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and it's worth mentioning she's also married to Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio.
Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
CARY: Great to be here.
SCHULTZ: Thank you.
MARTIN: And you both work - hard.
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CARY: Yes, we do.
SCHULTZ: Thank you for saying that. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.