Four prominent leaders of women's organizations held a conference call today, accompanied by Rep. Raul Grijalva, to demand the resignation of retired Sen. Alan Simpson as co-chair of the Deficit Commission. Their comments, together with a number of private conversations with women's leaders, indicate that Simpson and his Commission could be an even greater political liability among women voters than most observers initially suspected.
Women represent a key constituency in every election. In 2008, 53% of all voters were women, 56% of whom voted for Barack Obama (as opposed to 49% of males). So any issue that alienates women -- and the organizations that mobilize and lead them -- can be an enormous political liability. Simpson, and the Commission itself, are looking more and more like just such a liability.
The problem runs far deeper than Simpson's "milk cow with 310 million tits" comment in an email to Ashley B. Carson. As Ms. Carson said during the conference call: "An attack on Social Security is an attack on women." Even without the gratuitous insults, Simpson's disparaging remarks about recipients who "milk the system" indicate contempt for those who rely on Social Security, the majority of whom are women. If you combine Simpson's dismissal of women's groups as "Pink Panthers," his description of "ageism and sexism" as "all that crap" in his email, and his expressed contempt toward Ms. Carson's job working on behalf of older women ("write when you find real work"), these leaders say it paints the clear picture of a man who dismisses women and their issues as trivial.
At what point does Simpson become enough of a liability to draw a stronger response from the White House? In calling for his removal, Terry O'Neill, President of the National Organization of Women, said this on the conference call (I believe the quote's verbatim, although I'll check against a final transcript when it's available): "President Obama should have said, 'I know women elected me to office. Simpson went beyond the pale.'" Ms. O'Neill's official biography indicates that she worked on Barack Obama's campaign, which adds resonance to her remarks.
Susan Scanlan, Chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations (a coalition of 240 organizations representing 12 million women), said: "An honest difference of opinion on whether Social Security is in crisis should spark a lively national debate... Why can't this conversation be civil?"
The depth of anger among women over Simpson's stems from three things: the content of his email to Ms. Carson, his perceived hostility to women and their needs, and fears about his intentions toward Social Security.
About that email: I underestimated the level of offense it generated. While the "tit" reference was not sexual in nature, I've come to see that it triggered a real sense of violation and revulsion in a number of women -- tough professionals who are not overly sensitive. As one leader pointed out, "If he'd said that at any workplace in the country he'd be in legal trouble." It's deliberate crudity, bullying language designed to inflict discomfort in a woman. And Simpson can't play the "folksy" card in his own defense. Contrary to his public image, Simpson wasn't raised in a rural setting (where, in real life, people are typically far more courteous to women -- and everybody else -- than Simpson). He's the son of a former governor and senator, a child of privilege whose vulgar speech is his and his alone.
Women were equally angered by Simpson's comments to Ms. Carson that she's "babbling into the vapors" and his implication that she can't read a graph. Would he have said that to a man? People can disagree on that point, but many of the women I've spoken with don't think so. In that sense, this is not unlike the controversy over Dr. Laura's use of the "N" word (for which she ultimately lost her job).
A number of prominent women leaders have also mentioned Simpson's notorious bullying of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings, as well as his verbal and physical aggression toward journalist Nina Totenberg at that time (he reportedly forced her car door open and wouldn't let her leave as he continued screaming at her. Reports indicate, however, that eventually Ms. Totenberg "gave as good as she got" in their verbal exchange.) Many women felt that Simpson's hectoring of Ms. Hill during her testimony, especially about the fact that she didn't report Thomas' behavior and continued to be in contact with him, indicated a lack of empathy or understanding about the stress responses of sexual harassment victims. It's hard to read his remarks any other way.
Simpson also said this at the time: "It's a harsh thing, a very sad and harsh thing, and Anita Hill will be sucked right into the -- the very thing she wanted to avoid most. She will be injured and destroyed and belittled and hounded and harassed, real harassment, different from the sexual kind, just plain old Washington-variety harassment, which is pretty unique in itself." Women read that "real harassment" phrase as a dismissal of sexual harassment, and many took the overall comment as a threat -- which he then proceeded to carry out with vigor.
Wanda Baucus, then-wife of Sen. Max Baucus said at the time that she called members of the Judiciary Committee because she couldn't stand to see Ms. Hill "suffering at the hands of a bunch of thugs... " Ms. Baucus singled out Simpson who, according to Ms. Baucus, admitted to her that he knew that sexual harassment was a problem in Washington. Ms. Baucus said that Simpson's behavior "on television was totally false... He was being certainly less than honest with the American people in trying to degrade Anita Hill for being quiet."
The pain and anger caused by these experiences, which were deeply felt by a number of influential women, appears to have been revived by this latest incident.
As for Simpson's policy preferences, the record there is clear. Brian Beutler of Talking Points Memo has done an excellent job in uncovering his decades-long determination to cut Social Security (although I think Beutler underestimates the impact of Simpson's email itself, as many of us initially did). These women's organizations are understandably troubled by his longstanding hostility to the program, given the number of women who rely on Social Security for their financial security.
Simpson's "greedy geezers" comment angered seniors. Now he's insulted women. How many more key constituencies does he have to offend before it becomes clear what must be done? The president said he would bring a new tone to Washington, who insisted that "we can disagree without being disagreeable," is now backing an appointee who has repeatedly failed to meet that standard. As for Social Security, numerous polls have shown that Americans strongly oppose cutting its benefits. Republicans would like nothing more than to have Democrats take the heat for something they've wanted to do for a long time. And Democrats would pay dearly for a "bait and switch" campaign that promises to defend Social Security from cuts, if they then turn around and cut them anyway.
The Deficit Commission should not be cutting Social Security, since Social Security doesn't contribute to the deficit. And Alan Simpson has no place on that commission, whatever its mandate. That's why this online petition has been established, asking the White House and Congress to remove Sen. Simpson and remove Social Security from the Deficit Commission's scope of activities.
It usually takes a day or two to get a sense of how a political controversy will play out. After two days, and a public apology, this one's not looking good for Simpson. It's becoming increasingly clear that this controversy will linger on, creating long-term problems for everyone involved. The only way to end it, it now seems clear, is with decisive action -- and the sooner, the better.
(UPDATE: If you're concerned about Social Security, this could become your new favorite site -- StuffAlanSimpsonSays.com.)
Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Strengthen Social Security campaign. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.
He can be reached at "firstname.lastname@example.org."
Website: Eskow and Associates