The second presidential debate featured several questions from prior news cycles, from equal pay for women, to contraception and abortion, to illegal immigration and a ban on assault weapons.
All of these issues have been stump speech staples for Democrats since the '70s. As the Obama campaign blasts ads mocking Mitt Romney's reference to collecting binders of female candidates for state leadership, women voters may have determined that what matters is the challenges real women face today.
Dawn, a married mother of two who says she is living "paycheck to paycheck" told MSNBC's post-debate panel of undecided voters that she had now decided to vote for Mitt Romney because he was a businessman who had the skills to get the economy back on track. A 20-year-old voter on the panel said she was voting for Obama because he told her he would get her a job after she graduates from college, and because she agrees with him on social issues.
This panel broke 3-1 for Mitt Romney after the debate, although the interviewer reported it "was a draw."
When I was 18 years old and a freshman in college, I voted for Jimmy Carter. I doubt I would have found Mitt Romney as threatening as I found Ronald Reagan at that time. I was concerned about an unwanted pregnancy that would interfere with my plans for education and career. I received contraception free through my student health center and would have had a referral for an abortion should that have ever been required. (It was not.) By the time I was a senior in college, I was earning up to $25 an hour and paying my own way. I was no longer swayed by simple arguments about "social issues" or threats to the free birth control pills that I already had.
Then I was raped. The "A" student competing for a Rhodes Scholarship and a Watson Fellowship collapsed, barely graduating from college. It broke my world. Before, it had never crossed my mind that someone might want to hurt me. I realized that the rapist could easily have killed me and dumped my body by the side of the road, and chances were, few would have cared. I realized that to this man and many others, I was just another piece of human trash.
Over time, I've not only recovered, I have come to understand that the real progress in human and civil rights is very basic. Equal justice means that one person's life and values aren't of less importance than another's. We have a long, long way to go — and this issue was not discussed much, if at all, at the presidential debate last night.
It was only really discussed in the much-maligned answer regarding women's pay. I saw something very different in Mitt Romney's "binders of women" story than the advocates for Obama seem to see. He described reaching out beyond the "old boys' network." Legislatures can pass all the laws they want people hire people. Judging by focus groups after the debate, undecided voters seem more attached to reality than political pundits realize. They have seen hundreds of meaningless laws passed and heard thousands of meaningless slogans.
As to other debate issues, in addition to abortion and free birth control, women's health care involves breast cancer, ovarian cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, depression, and a higher risk of death after heart attack. U.S. life expectancy among lower-income, less-educated people has fallen by four years since 1990. The causes are stress and obesity, which are inter-related.
Dozens of studies point out that women suffer greater stress than men. It is difficult to feed a child nutritious fruits, vegetables and protein on an extremely limited budget. It is extraordinarily stressful to care for a child while working two or three jobs, and perhaps commuting several hours a day. People aren't just choosing whether or not to eat out now, they are juggling bills and making sacrifices I have not seen personally since the 1980s.
This election is not about free birth control bills. It isn't about assault weapons bans. It's not about a fear Mitt Romney will stop women from having abortions. It's not about gay marriage. And it isn't about a choice to believe Barack Obama this time about immigration reform.
Here in California, it's about $5-a-gallon gas and $6-a-gallon milk. It's about job listings that are two-thirds comprised of rip-offs and scams, one-third part-time food service jobs. It's about college graduates leaving school with $50,000 in debt to launch a 25-hour-a-week career at Starbucks.
We don't need to fight the Republican "War on Women." We need to work together to get strong and healthy again. Too many people right now, especially women, don't see a bright future. They are afraid their children will not have the opportunities that they had. Winter is coming on, and they are struggling to keep milk in the refrigerator and gas in the car.
Mitt Romney's binders may be mockable, but they made it possible for him to accomplish something. They made it possible for him to make a change.