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Nicholas Wapshott: 2016: The women’s election
July 04, 2013
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Governor Rick Perry of Texas made little impression on the 2012 election. Once billed as a class act, he emerged as a comic turn. There was the “I’ll never forgetwhatshisname” debate flub when he couldn’t remember one of the Cabinet departments he was committed to abolishing was Energy. And there was his tired and emotional stump speech in New Hampshire when, well, I’m not quite sure what he was talking about. Perhaps it was his Dean Martin impression.

But Perry is sure to make a strong impression on the outcome of the 2016 election. When he signs into law the Texas anti-abortion measures, he will spark a women’s revolt that is sure to reverberate across the nation.

The 2012 contest left the Republican Party backed largely by old white men. The 2016 election is likely to be dominated by women’s issues. When the Coen Brothers set their movie No Country for Old Men in the high desert of West Texas, they could not have imagined their title would become an election slogan.

The proposed new Texas anti-abortion law, sure to be passed before long, does not just restrict itself to preventing terminations after 20 weeks, a practice that is rare in any case. The measure goes well beyond, swamping clinics with so many regulations that 37 are expected to close, leaving only six to serve 13 million Texan women in a state that is 773 miles wide and 790 miles long. In addition, women who have been raped may not cite that as a reason for wanting an abortion.

The thousands of women who descended on the Texas state capitol in Austin last week to register their opposition to the bill appear to have taken the Republicans in Texas by surprise. Did they imagine that trying to overturn a woman’s right to choose, established in 1973 by the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, was going to be easy?

The protest has made Wendy Davis, the Texas lawmaker who filibustered the bill, an overnight celebrity who looks ready to take her message about the Republican assault on women’s health across the country.

She is the Democrats’ answer to Sarah Palin — but with a Harvard law degree. Some Texas Democrats hope she will run against Perry for the governorship.

But the revolt over women’s health does not stop at Texas. Restrictions on a woman’s right to choose have been passed in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota (which bans abortions after six weeks), Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Other anti-abortion measures were defeated, for the time being, in only Pennsylvania and Idaho. Sixteen states — Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Virginia — have bans on “partial-birth” abortions.

The occupation of the Texas state capitol by angry women caught the national imagination, perhaps due to the drama of Davis’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington moment, which immediately went viral over the social networks. Similar mass protests by women have taken place elsewhere, too, including last week in Ohio — a pivotal presidential election state — where the Statehouse was crowded with women dissenters.

The importance of Davis’s stand, however, is the way it has inspired a nationwide discussion about the creeping encroachment on abortion rights that has been taking place without widespread media coverage in statehouses across the nation.

Republicans in 2012 said it was preposterous to suggest they were waging a “war on women.” But in more than 30 states now, they have won battles even if they have not yet won the war. State lawmakers introduced more than 300 bills last year attempting to restrict abortion rights. Just two weeks ago, Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to ban abortions after 20 weeks.

If the fury unleashed in Austin is any judge, the outrage surrounding Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” gaffe will be nothing compared to the concerted female fury at the polls in the midterm elections next year and in 2016.

Some Republican men still do not understand the offense caused by their ignorance about how a woman’s body works and the reasons women reluctantly choose an abortion. Perry’s intrusive personal remarks about Davis, in which he said she was “born into difficult circumstances” and hadn’t “learned from her own example,” even shocked the Republican speaker of the Texas House, who said the governor had “crossed the line.”

When it comes to women’s issues, it seems even Republican women cannot help making fools of themselves.

The Supreme Court, in its wisdom, has for many years ducked the issue of the nullification by state legislatures of federally guaranteed abortion rights. But last week the nine justices requested the Oklahoma state court provide more details of a state law intended to limit the use of drugs commonly prescribed to induce abortions. When Oklahoma provides the answers, the justices promise they will rule in their next session on whether the ban is constitutional.

So, come what may, the wider issue of abortion is sure to be federalised before the midterms.

It is against a background of largely female protests about abortion rights and other women’s health issues that both the midterms and then the 2016 presidential campaign will be fought. Having been beaten into second place by Barack Obama, there is a groundswell of support for Hillary Clinton among women of both parties. There is a sense, particularly among older women, that since we have now elected an African-American to the White House, it is time the United States elected a woman president.

Polls show women have an overwhelmingly favourable opinion of Clinton, they thoroughly approve of her performance as secretary of state and support her running for president by two to one. It is telling, perhaps, that Republicans in general and white men in particular oppose her candidacy. Though whether that is because they think she might win, simply don’t like her, or both, is unclear.

Short of Davis throwing her hat in the ring, Clinton appears to have the race to herself. If she wants to run, Democrats are only too happy to let her. Currently she is the favourite by far, with Vice President Joe Biden a distant second. Until she declares one way or the other, no Democratic donor will waste their money on another candidate.

While Clinton says, “I’m flattered. I am honored” with the suggestion she may run and insists, “That is not in the future for me,” she quickly added, “Obviously I’m hoping that I’ll get to cast my vote for a woman running for president of our country.” And she said, “I really do hope that we have a woman president in my lifetime.” Those who know the Clintons best are in little doubt she will run.

2016 is therefore set to be the Women’s Election. Republicans have already started their campaign against Clinton, hoping to stick her with the killing of US Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi and the suggestion that at 69 she will be too old. (Perhaps they forget Ronald Reagan was inaugurated two weeks before his 70th birthday.)

So who will the Republicans pick to stand against her? There are some who suggest the publicity surrounding Perry’s anti-abortion stance in Texas will propel him into the race.

In which case we may be set to enjoy a battle of the sexes every bit as colourful and entertaining as that between Petruchio and Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew.


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