HER WAR WITH THE GOP
12:00 AM, Apr 8, 1996 • By HEATHER R. HIGGINS
You have to feel sorry for Democrats, what with 200 of their elected offcials switching parties since Clinton was elected and almost no Republicans returning the compliment. So it's not surprising that Frank Rich rushed to embrace Tanya Melich and her "profusely documented, tell-all account," The Republican War Against Women: An Insider's Report from Behind the Lines (Bantam, 356 pages, $ 23.95). Rich and others who champion this book, however, face a wee problem: The documentation is shoddy and high- ly selective, the tales that get told are so flagrantly revisionist that even a political amateur would smirk, the premise depends on Orwellian doublespeak, and the "insider" simply isn't. In short, this is not a serious book making a legitimate argument. Nor is it a true insider's account with genuine revelations and fresh information. Rather, it is a screed, a long whine, with the intellectual depth of a wading pool.
Start with the word "misogynist," which appears nearly 70 times in one form or another, for an average of once every four page. Silly you if you thought it meant someone who hates or distrusts women. No, here a "misogynist" is anyone who disagrees with the liberal eral policies Melich advocates. Equally original is Melich's standard for gauging the Republican party's "assault on women." It takes no account of real gains by women in the party hierarchy, but only measures gains by the right kind of woman -- the pro-choice kind. And even the appointment of the right kind of woman doesn't quite count for Melich unless the women in question are "placed in a position to affect reproductive health policy." It's rather like calling the Democratic party racist, with racist redefined to mean anything Thomas Sowell would disagree with, and racist behavior the appointment of anyone other than black individuals, who hold Sowell's views, to positions responsible for race- related matters.
The misuse of language to vilify the majority of Republicans only begins with "misogynist" and its close companions "bigot,. . . . hater,. . . . racist," and "zealot," to name a few. Democrats, by the way, are spared these epithets. When they agree with Republican positions on particular issues, they are at worst motivated by "genuine conviction" (Sam Ervin, who opposed the ERA) or "sanctimonious" (Carter, who wouldn't fight for federal funding for abortions). Words like "vindictive,. . . . vicious," and "virulent" Melich saves for Republicans and their party of "theocrats and the usual unprincipled power seekers." Her disdain for accuracy and subtlety, however, really shines in her historical analogies.
Thus, President Bush instituted "policies that sought to relegate women to their pre-Enlightenment status." (Just in case women were wondering where our property, suffrage, and right to divorce went.) At the International Women's Year conference in Houston, women "argued about . . . the stereotyping of women into traditional roles. 'How can I stop my husband from beating me?' they asked." (Ah, yes, the favorite traditional role -- and no stereotypes here.) The harassment of Geraldine Ferraro by the Reagan team proceeded "with the same ferocity exhibited 300 years ago by the 'good Puritans' of Salem." (And the same legitimacy, too.) Bush's veto of the Civil Rights Act of 1990 was "only the third time in American history that a president had vetoed a civil rights bill. [The first was] in 1866 when Andrew Johnson vetoed legislation giving civil rights protection to the newly freed slaves." (And you thought Republicans only wanted to go back to the 1950s!)
Elsewhere, Melich practices revision by omission. Examples abound. As a member of the Coalition Against Bork, she knows better than to present as legitimate the deliberate distortions of Bork's opinions that were used to slander him during his confirmation process. But she never acknowledges that the behavior of the opposition was so extreme and indifferent to truth as to produce a new verb: to bork. Rather, Melich for once discovers understatement, noting that while the hearings may have been "less civilized than many in the past," the vituperativeness was wholly the fault of Republicans who were trying to "pack" the court to "reflect their views of justice."
Geraldine Ferraro's nomination restores to Melich "dreams assaulted by the Reagan years" -- but er candidacy is recounted as a simple tale of bigots and misogynists seizing on the little "wrinkle" of the candidate's "husband not wanting to release his tax returns" and using this to attack Ferraro because she is Italian, a Catholic (the good, pro-choice kind), and a woman. Of what those tax returns ultimately revealed, as well as what other evidence (as opposed to "innuendo") turned up, there is not a whisper.
But abortion is the area where Melich's inability to see beyond her prejudices is most evident. Whatever one's position on the issue, it is hard to ignore the fact that for right-to-lifers, abortion is a moral issue; to them, any "right" to choose abortion is as meaningless as a property "right" to own slaves. Yet Melich contends that what really motivates pro4ifers are concerns like states rights, political timing, and party loyalty-with barely a mention of anything more profound.
Nor does she recognize that public sentiment on abortion is complicated and nuanced, distributed along a bell curve, depending on why and at what stage an abortion is sought. While quick to cite public opinion whenever it supports her views, Melich conveniently forgets about it when propounding her own vehement opposition to popular measures such as parental notification, restricted federal funding, waiting periods, and testing for fetal viability. She asserts that these constitute gross infringements of reproductive freedom. Indeed, the "individual freedom of women to make their own reproductive choices [is] bedrock Republican philosophy," she announces, and "each person must follow his or her own conscience." But this is not an argument. After all, in her Wendell Willkie childhood, laws governing all sorts of personal behavior, from loitering to abortion, were on the books and widely accepted, by her party and everyone else.
In any case, "reproductive choice" logically resides at intercourse, which is why contraception is widely approved. Abortion is different. What we are wrestling with as a nation and what the Republican party is discussing internally is when, if ever, and under what circumstances a decision to abort is morally acceptable and should be legally permissible. It is a nuanced question, and Melich does not do it justice.
While Melich claims to be opposed to an intrusive government, she seems to mean it only in the area of abortion. She assures us, for example, that to be truly uninvolved, the federal government must pay for abortions. In fact a liberal moving under cover of feminism, she favors government intrusion and spending, whether in the guise of affirmative action, "extension" of the Equal Pay Act, federal funding for and regulation of day care, and, apparently, all other entitlements and social spending. (Yes, the predictable denunciation of those cruel Reagan spending cuts is here, along with a contradictory concern about rising deficits.) As for House speaker Newt Gingrich (who sends "misogynist and racist messages"), his Opportunity Society "will limit women's right to reproductive choice, eliminate affirmative action, punish poor women for having children, and make life more miserable for women in general." In short, it's hard to tell why Melich was a Republican for so long.
What she certainly is, however, is a Victim. Whenever Melich's side loses a fight over policy, she tells us that "the misogynist strategy worked." When someone she dis-approves of wins an election, it's the fault of "incumbency and regional bias." When a woman is criticized for the policies she espouses, her critics are "anti-woman" and "extremists" who have "women as a particular target" or "don't want to share power." Anyone who makes a principled argument for a position Melich disagrees with is merely "cloaking attacks in a mantle of religiosity and morality." When conservative women are highly regarded, whether Phyllis Schlafiy, Jeane Kirkpatrick, or the current Republican congresswomen, they are being used or "co-opted." It's a simplistic view, a world where the typical choice is "between a misogynist fiscal conservative and a feminist moderate" -- but it's the only paradigm that allows this rancorous woman to avoid confronting herself.
Looking ahead, Melich anticipates that women will punish Republicans at the polls in '96. But throughout her book she admits time and again that her predictions have been wrong, the product of wishful thinking and other forms of self-delusion. Indeed, she lays out a record of astonishing consistency, a particularly brave admission for someone who apparently runs a political consulting firm. So as Tanya Melich closes the door on her "birthright Republicanism," let all good Republicans hope that she prospers -- as a consultant to Democrats.
Heather R. Higgins a senior fellow at the Progress and Freedom Fomdation.