Worrying About Women

As the man in charge of honing Bill Clinton's re-election themes, consultant Dick Morris is always trolling for new material. Recently he asked the feminist writer Naomi Wolf for advice on how the president could boost his support among women voters. The author of "The Beauty Myth" (and wife of Clinton speechwriter David Shipley) obliged with a breathless memo urging Morris to create "an overarching, pre-emptive metaphor" of Clinton as "The Good Father" protecting and defending the country. "One story for his administration, and for this fight, should be about building a house together--the American house," Wolf advises. Clinton could offer to "negotiate about the shape of the house we are building; the design; the details; but [say] I will not let anyone or anything touch the bedrock. I will DEFEND/PROTECT the foundation." The memo, which was leaked to The Washington Post, suggested that Clinton be portrayed as "a mature cultural gatekeeper."

Morris loved it. Others in the administration cringed, furious that the touchy-feely memo projected exactly the wrong image: a White House so clueless about women's issues that it has to turn to a pop-sociology celebrity for help. "It's nothing, it's guidance for nothing, it's the basis for nothing, it's nothing," protested a senior White House adviser. In fact, women's issues are already a top concern of the Clinton campaign, which knows how essential women are to '96. It's a matter of math. White men are abandoning the Democrats; Clinton must make up the difference among women.

This wouldn't seem like much of a problem for Clinton. In 1992 his stands on the issues women say they care about most--education, health care, the environment -- won him a crucial plurality of women's votes (45 percent to Bush's 87 percent). And once in office, Clinton hired record numbers of women; 42 percent of his appointees are female.

Even so, by '94 Clinton's support among female voters was slipping in the polls, Many women, upset by Clinton's failure to pass health-care reform and the zigzags of his first two years, stayed home in the '94 congressional elections. (The female vote accounted for only 51 percent of the electorate, down from 54 percent in '92.) Today the president's numbers are especially weak among non-college-educated married women, many of whom say they have lost faith in government's ability to solve problems. They are also turned off by Hillary Clinton's in-your-face careerism and by Whitewater. She has staunch female defenders and is still popular among professional women, but even Yuppies have grown more skeptical because of the Clinton scandals. And feminists grouse that despite appearances, women have been excluded from the real inner circle. "There isn't one woman in the White House with real stroke, outside of Hillaryland," agrees one--male--administration aide.

At the White House, the shorthand for this year's winning combination is "MME"--Medicare, Medicaid, Education (and the Environment). Issues remain Clinton's best draw; many women tack toward the Democrats when confronted with Gingrichite ideology. In last week's Oregon special election to fill Bob Packwood's Senate seat, suburban women--including Republicans--were decisive in electing Ron Wyden, the state's first Democratic senator in 84 years, in a race that turned on the GOP's harsh stands on the environment and abortion.

To get the message out nationally, the White House opened an Office of Women's Initiatives and Outreach. The operation airdrops female cabinet members around the country, where they host meetings to gauge women's concerns. Each month, the women's office gives Clinton a greatest-hits memo of what they're hearing from the field. One such missive helped persuade Clinton to zero in on domestic violence in his State of the Union speech.

At the White House, one woman is finally beginning to have some real influence-in private and in public. For years, female advisers have complained that the president is flanked only by men in TV shots of Clinton striding to his helicopter. But chief of staff Leon Panetta's respected new deputy, Evelyn Lieberman, is becoming a serious inside player. Now each time Clinton strolls out to Marine One, there's at least one female staffer by his side.