Bay Buchanan, the Republican activist who often speaks publicly on behalf of Mitt Romney, baffled a group of reporters recently when she threw out a statistic no one had heard before.
"Nearly 1 million women have become unemployed as a result of Barack Obama's policies," Buchanan said on a conference call arranged by the Romney campaign. "That's 92 percent of the jobs lost while Barack Obama has been president."
"You want to talk about the real war on women, you go right over and talk to the White House about what they've done to working women," Buchanan added. "They've set us back 20 years."
Reporters on the call seemed a little confused. "So 92 percent of jobs lost under Barack Obama were women?" asked one. "Could you repeat that?" asked another. "I'm sorry, where did that statistic come from?" asked a third. Buchanan explained that the number came from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and a Romney staffer jumped in to offer documentation to anyone who wanted it.
A short time later, Mitt Romney himself, ever precise, used an even more specific figure out on the campaign trail. "This is an amazing statistic," he told a group of women business owners in Hartford, Conn. "Ninety-two-point-three percent of all the jobs lost during the Obama years have been lost by women. Ninety-two-point-three percent! ... The real war on women is being waged by the president's failed economic policies."
Supporters of the president immediately pushed back, and the fact-checking website PolitiFact declared the statistic "mostly false." But it is, in fact, true. Of the 740,000 nonfarm payroll jobs lost between January 2009, when Obama took office, and last month, 683,000 were jobs lost by women. The short explanation is that men in industries such as construction and manufacturing were the first to lose their jobs in the Great Recession, mostly in 2008. Jobs occupied largely by women were lost later, in 2009, after Obama took office and a lot of men were already out of work.
The 92.3 percent offensive was the result of some clever research by the Romney campaign, where some smart staffers are constantly digging through data -- not waiting for media reports -- to find themes that help illustrate Romney's positions. Relying on its own number crunching, the campaign responded quickly and aggressively to PolitiFact's objections with a sharp rebuttal from campaign policy chief Lanhee Chen.
But it still seems unlikely that 92.3 percent will become a mainstay of the campaign. The problem is, it just doesn't sound right. Without questioning the Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers, people know friends and family members who have lost jobs in the recession. They've seen with their own eyes what it has done to businesses. And they have a basic, commonsense understanding that job losses from the economic downturn have been devastating to both men and women, did not start in January 2009, and are not the result of anyone's war on one gender or the other.
Romney campaign officials say they're not trying to suggest that Barack Obama has somehow targeted women for bad treatment, but that Obama's policies have been terrible for women overall. "The point we're trying to make is that the Obama agenda has been a disaster for women," says a campaign aide. "It's not that the Obama administration has pursued policies that advantaged men at the expense of women. ... The point is, on the issues that matter to women, the Obama administration has failed."
The underlying point they're trying to make, say Romney aides, is that the big issue for women is the economy, not contraceptives or abortion, as Democrats screaming "war on women" would have voters believe. Of course, those issues that matter most to women -- jobs, economic growth, the price of gas -- matter just as much to men. None of them involves a "war on women" by anybody.
One of the main themes of the Romney campaign is that in 2009 and 2010, when Americans were desperate for a president to devote his energies to creating jobs and fixing the economy, Obama was instead obsessed with passing an intrusive and vastly expensive national health-care plan, as well as with pushing through Congress a pork-laden stimulus, and even hoped to pass a cap-and-trade scheme that would have reordered the parts of the economy that hadn't already been reordered by the health-care scheme.
Yet now Romney calls Obama's obvious economic failures "the real war on women." Romney's motives are pretty transparent: He's trying to fight back against the Democrats' latest talking point. But Republicans know the Democratic charge is ridiculous. Why make one of their own?