Binders full of pander: the meme that matters

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, in Hempstead, N.Y.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, in Hempstead, N.Y.
AP/Eric Gay

Tuesday night’s debate certainly met expectations for being a more spirited battle. Both candidates fought hard, and there were many memorable moments, but the line that seems most memorable today is Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women.”

The line has lit the internet on fire, perhaps, in part, because it’s so absurd that it’s hard not to mock, something that can only exist in a world where women are objects or commodities that you can almost literally put into a binder. It’s that absurdity that led more than 250,000 people to “Like” a new Facebook page called “Binders Full of Women” and helped to inspire images like this one:

And this one:

The line was part of an answer on pay equity for women. Here the key part of what Romney said:

[W]e took 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 was proud of the fact that after I staffed my Cabinet and my senior staff, that the University of New York in Albany did a survey of all 50 states, and concluded that mine had more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America.

There are a couple problems with this answer. The first, is that it’s not true. It was debunked before Romney had left the Hofstra University campus last night by David Bernstein. Romney did not conceive of and solicit the “binders of women” he referenced. They were put together before he was elected and brought to him by “ a bipartisan group of women in Massachusetts [who] formed MassGAP to address the problem of few women in senior leadership positions in state government.”

It is possible that Romney genuinely wanted more women in his leadership and wanted the binders before he knew they existed, but it seems more likely that he saw this as a solution to an “optics” problem. It doesn’t look good if you don’t have many women working for you, just as it doesn’t look good to “have illegals working for you” when you’re “running for office, for Pete’s sake!”

Regardless of why Romney chose to pull out that binder, having more women in leadership positions is commendable. But it helps if you give them serious jobs, which, as Bernstein also points out, didn’t really happen:

Romney did appoint 14 women out of his first 33 senior-level appointments, which is a reasonably impressive 42 percent. However, as I have reported before, those were almost all to head departments and agencies that he didn’t care about – and in some cases, that he quite specifically wanted to not really do anything. None of the senior positions Romney cared about – budget, business development, etc. – went to women.

Secondly, a UMass-Boston study found that the percentage of senior-level appointed positions held by women actually declined throughout the Romney administration, from 30.0% prior to his taking office, to 29.7% in July 2004, to 27.6% near the end of his term in November 2006.

Unfortunately this is what the Romney campaign is all about these days. Women are a problem that he must solve. The gender gap has been his Achilles’ heel for months now, and at times he’s been more than 20 points behind the president with female voters. (That’s what happens when you don’t support letting women sue for fair pay and think employers should be able to deny women their birth control coverage.)

But Romney’s answer did not include meaningful policy initiatives that would help a woman get better pay. President Obama’s answer was based on his record and specifics. Romney essentially said “I hired women one time” instead of saying “here’s what I’ll do to make sure your boss pays you fairly.”

After his first debate performance, Romney had managed to close that gap somewhat, but it is entirely possible that Tuesday’s comments will alienate some of the women he had made inroads with– women who don’t take kindly to being put into binders.

Binders full of pander: the meme that matters