West Wing Story: Laura Bush And The Gender Card

Like any good politician, Laura Bush has a few tried and true yarns she uses to entertain a crowd. One of her best tales recounts how, when fledgling politician George W. Bush asked her to marry him, they made a deal: he promised she'd never have to make a political speech; she promised she'd go jogging with him. "I've never run a day in my life," she'll sometimes joke, while telling the story at a campaign rally, acknowledging that they both broke their promises. ON WEDNESDAY, THE First Lady showed what a disarmingly effective politician she has become since those early days of her marriage. She headlined a "political event" (read: fundraiser) for Congresswoman Connie Morella at an upscale home in Potomac, Md. "Hosts" paid $1,000 for a "grip and grin"--as the handshake and photo opportunity is known in Washington. For $500, the other "guests" got to hear her make a seemingly effortless political speech. "Perhaps her greatest work has been on behalf of the women of Maryland," Bush said of Morella, who has been a moderate, pro-choice voice in the party.

Some interpreted Bush's appearance--one of only a half dozen fundraisers she's done during the midterm elections--as a quiet nod to Morella's more liberal Republican views. Bush has campaigned for several women candidates this season, including another moderate Republican, Maine Senator Susan Collins. But while the First Lady's politics may run toward Morella's (Laura hinted in an interview two years ago that she was pro-choice), her "political events" are run by chief strategist Karl Rove. In the end, it's politics not policies that are setting her campaign schedule: Morella is in one of the toughest races in the country.

Several of the candidates Laura Bush has campaigned for are not moderate at all. Her first fundraiser of the mid-term elections was in California for gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon, whose far-right ideas never stood much of a chance for statewide enthusiasm. She campaigned for him last June, before his campaign imploded. The White House would never waste the First Lady's clout on him now.

Mrs. Bush is a closer. GOP strategists have saved her for their toughest races. She's done events for John Cornyn, who is battling for the Senate in Texas. For George W. Bush's party to lose in his home state would be, to the say the least, embarrassing. But nothing could be worse than Jeb Bush losing a second term as governor of Florida. The First Lady went to help out her brother-in-law early this month at a "Women for Jeb" rally that drew about 700. "He's worked so hard for public schools, he's worked hard to fight crime. These are issues that are important to all Floridians, and especially to Florida's women," Laura Bush said.

The First Lady often plays the gender card. Rove knows that high profile Republican women supporting GOP candidates is good for the party's gender gap problem. Presidential advisers Karen Hughes and Mary Matalin have also been stumping in the last few months and will be working through the weekend in New Jersey, Texas and on the airwaves leading up to Tuesday's election. Sometimes they'll talk about a candidate's record on women's rights. Laura Bush praised Morella for her Violence Against Women Act and her efforts to push the National Institutes of Health to include more women in clinical trials. "Nobody fights harder for women," Bush said Wednesday.

But mostly, Bush, Hughes and Matalin don't talk about "women's issues"--much derided in this administration. For them, crime, education and homeland security are women's issues. They focus instead on how much the president needs Senator X or Congresswoman Y to accomplish his agenda. The fact that they are women is just a bonus that the party is milking. "The administration has been both very smart and very cynical," says the National Organization of Women's Kim Gandy. "They are working against women's rights issues and using women to do their dirty work."

Gandy argues that despite the high profile women in the White House we see on the stump, traditional "women's issues"--from reproductive rights to health coverage--have suffered under the Bush administration. Over the summer, the liberal leaning NOW started a campaign called "The Truth About George" to document what they see as a roll back of women's rights. For the First Lady, this is all a warm up for 2004, when she'll be back on the road and back at the podium.