Second Presidential Debate Recap (Binders Full of Women)

Unlike my last two debate recaps, I am not going to rehash the arguments made by the two candidates point for point for this third debate. The second presidential debate seemed to consist more of political posturing than real argument, of claims that the opponent had his facts wrong more than principled contrast. The platforms that were expounded in the first two debates were not expanded on much in this debate. Having said that, I do think that the debate had one important outcome: it seemed to mostly undo the damage that Romney did to Obama in the first debate.

In this debate, Obama held his own, and successfully defended himself from Romney’s punches, while pulling a fair number himself (“Governor Romney doesn’t have a five point plan, he has a one point plan. And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules” also, the now-infamous Romney fact-check from moderator Candy Crowley). While Obama certainly did much better rhetorically, the ideas of the debate were pretty much the same as those being discussed in the first two debates. For that reason, I found that neither candidate delivered much more ideas-wise to persuade a truly undecided voter.

One comment that I do think it’s worth spending a little bit more time on is Romney’s “binders full of women” remark, another now-infamous moment from the debate. The line was made as part of a response to an audience member’s question asking how women’s inequality would be rectified in the workplace. First, Obama responded by talking about how he signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act during the beginning of his term. Then it was Romney’s turn. The Republican candidate began by stating that when he was elected governor of Massachusetts, he initially had a hard time finding qualified women for his cabinet, but he knew they must be out there, so he sought them out and sure enough found “whole binders full of women”. The internet responded instantly to the line, binders of women jokes abounding. Many claimed that the line revealed just how out of touch Romney is with women. Others came to Romney’s defense, arguing that he did a good thing by seeking out qualified women for his cabinet rather than simply going with the men he already knew. But the most common qualm seemed to be with the phrase itself, “binders full of women”, even if one agreed with the intended sentiment behind by it: that there are lots of really qualified women.

Perhaps the offensive idea underlying Romney’s remark was that it may not be immediately obvious that qualified women exist, so the fact that he actively sought them out somehow made him a more enlightened man. Or maybe the internet outrage came as a result of his apparent surprise to have found so many of them. Or maybe the reaction rose to such an enormous level because in stating that the women were in binders (rather than say their resumes), he reduced them to mere pieces of paper, belittling them even as he was trying to build them up.

But one thing strikes me as odd here. Women are not minorities. Women make up 51% of the population. Why are we even talking about them as a ‘them’? Is it because they are being systematically oppressed by their male counterparts, such that the government owes them some kind of legal protection or remedy? If it’s true that women are not making equal pay for equal work, is this a result of real gender discrimination or some other factors? The debate reminds me of a short article from an issue of the economist that went to print last spring, which leads me to conclude: some form of discrimination will always take place in the workplace, no matter what regulations are put in place by the government. The only acceptable form of discrimination is based on merit. Given that businesses need qualified candidates in order to succeed, aren’t they disadvantaging themselves by passing over qualified females for less qualified males? Won’t this eventually lead to sexist organizations being overtaken by their non-sexist competitors? Won’t sexism eventually be overcome by natural market forces? And if this is the case, should the government still try to protect women from being discriminated against? If they should, should they also institute legislation to prevent people from being discriminated against based on attractiveness, height, or age? How would we enforce such policies? And where do we draw the line?

Democrats have been telling me that I should take their side in this election for the sake of social issues, if for nothing else. In this case however, the line seems to be blurred between the social and the economic. If the government can be trusted, and the market cannot be, then it seems that a vote for the Republicans is a vote against women. On the other hand, if the market can be trusted more than the government can, then it is unclear to me, at least on this particular issue that a vote for the Republicans actually is a vote against women (and I need not remind the reader that many Republicans are women). There may be reasons not to vote for the Republicans, but this seems to not be one of them. Maybe one of my Democrat friends can explain where I’ve gone wrong here.

-Spark Jameson


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