The Trouble With Mining Identity Politings for Political Gold

The White House team have perfected campaign data-crunching. They have pioneered and mastered the art of finding on-the-fence voters, discovering what their issues are, and then coming up with messaging designed to sway their vote. It’s effective, but it’s also potentially problematic. It means that politics isn’t so much about finding and supporting issues that command a majority so much as it is cobbling together a group of ideas—some of which you have no intent to pass—that win over smaller constituencies.

Again, that’s not always a bad thing, but it can also create or inflame divisions in America that deserve a more thoughtful debate. That’s what we’re seeing now in the White House’s ploy to bring up the gender wage gap. Should women receive equal pay for equal work? Absolutely, it’s sad that it’s even a question. But, as the Washington Post reports, that’s not quite the White House’s intent:

This week, the White House and Democrats had a clear strategy.  Spend the week talking about equal pay and the gender wage gap, put Republicans on the defensive (a bonus would be if a Republican said something stupid) and then use the momentum and the talking points that emerged to frame the debate during the upcoming recess.

In short, this week was set to be the kick-off for Democrats’ midterm messaging, which at its core is all about finding issues that resonate on an emotional and economic level with the so-called Obama coalition, particularly single women.

This sounds simple enough, right?  Especially given that Democrats have mastered their turnout efforts when it comes to single women, who voted for Obama over GOP nominee Mitt Romney, 67 percent to 31 percent.

Things haven’t quite gone as planned, not because it’s an issue unworthy of discussion, but because Democrats got so caught up in politics that they forgot to tell the truth.

It started with Democrats tossing out the claim that women make 77 cents on the dollar compared to men, which would be compelling were it true. The fact is that when you take factors like the number of hours worked, the length of career interruptions and the type of job into account the pay gap almost disappears (Granted, it should completely disappear, so let’s have that conversation). But when reporters pressed them to support the numbers the Obama Administration folded like a cheap suit.

“If I said 77 cents was equal pay for equal work, then I completely misspoke,” a White House economic adviser said in a conference call with reporters, just minutes after saying that women doing “identical work” make 23 percent less than men. “So let me just apologize and say that I certainly wouldn’t have meant to say that.”

But even that argument fell on its face when it was later revealed that if you use the Obama Administration’s definition of a gender pay gap then White House staffers who are women only earn 88 cents of what male staffers do.

Jay Carney only made things worse in a later press conference.

“I think that those studies look at, uh, the aggregate of everyone on staff,” Carney said. “And that includes some of the most junior levels to the most senior.”

“And obviously, though, at the end of the day the 88 cents that you cite, that is not 100, but it is better than the national average,” Carney continued.

Ouch. You’d think that the Obama Administration would have its own house in order before casting stones, especially since this White House has repeatedly been accused of being a “boys club.”

Sadly, as the Washington Post’s factchecker resignedly admits after debunking the “77 cent” claim, the figure is “golden” and thus Democrats “can keep bringing it up every two years.”

And as Ruth Marcus writes,

[T]he level of hyperbole — actually, of demagoguery — that Democrats have engaged in here is revolting. It’s entirely understandable, of course: The Senate is up for grabs. Women account for a majority of voters. They tend to favor Democrats. To the extent that women — and in particular, single women — can be motivated to turn out in a midterm election, waving the bloody shirt of unequal pay is smart politics.

That’s not just problematic, it’s sad, because it stymies the debate we should be having in the name of political expediency. Women deserve better. America deserves better.