Missing the Mark on the Largest Voting Bloc

This article was first printed in the Washington Post.

The final debate between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry covered a lot of ground on the key domestic challenges we face, from security and the deficit to health care and jobs. But on an issue central to more than half of all Americans, both moderator and candidates missed the mark.

In his wrap-up question, moderator Bob Schieffer closed with an acknowledgment that he, Bush and Kerry "are surrounded by very strong women." He then asked: "What is the most important thing you've learned from these strong women?"

After almost 90 minutes spent on our spiraling deficit, collapsing health care system and the president's plan to tackle job losses through elementary school education programs, it was really sweet of Schieffer to end the debate on such a light note. It was right up there with the "What's your favorite song?" question during the primary debates.

Schieffer's question provoked similarly soft and amusing responses. Both candidates made mild jokes and pledged their undying loyalty to wives, mothers and daughters. They acknowledged that their ability to lead had been inspired by these women. Ward Cleaver couldn't have done better.

Schieffer asked an important question the wrong way, and the candidates answered on Schieffer's terms. And while it's true that our strength provides support for our friends, partners and families, we're strong on the front lines too. We are at the center of this election game, and we are players.

We "strong women" are wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, partners, nieces and aunts. But we are also executives, doctors, lawyers, soldiers, factory workers, policymakers, politicians, journalists, professors and students. We all contribute to the economy, stability and safety of this country.

We are diverse in who we are, what we do, the choices we make and the lives we lead. But together, we represent this country's largest voting bloc= Among us is at least one constituency — single working women — that could swing the election. We head more households than men and make more choices about health care and education than our male counterparts. And we care about terrorism and our national security just as much as the next guy.

With all due respect to the very strong Bush and Kerry women, we want and deserve more from a presidential debate than a Hallmark moment. We need to ask our leaders what they are doing, and will do, to ensure that women have access to the education and training we need to succeed in the 21st century, earn a fair wage for our work, have meaningful choices in our lives, and live in security and prosperity.

At points, John Kerry seemed to get it — he promised to raise the minimum wage, which he said would increase the earnings of 9.2 million women, and pointed out the stunning reality that in today's America, women earn 76 percent of what their male counterparts earn for the same work.

What did we want to hear that the candidates had learned from their "strong women"? That women have something to say, and it's worth listening to. If he wanted to keep it in the family, Bush might have shared his mother's admonition that he ignored her direction at his peril. Kerry might have echoed his wife, Teresa's, line at the Democratic National Convention, that "one day soon, women, who have all earned their right to their opinions, instead of being labeled opinionated, will be called smart and well informed, just like men."

We wanted to hear that we are valued and critical voices — not just at the dining room table but also at the corporate board table and that big table that sits in the center of the Situation Room at the White House. We were waiting for someone to say that the United States is more effective, more capable and more admired as a country when we ensure that we have the best and the brightest participating in leadership at all levels of this country — women and men alike.

And we want to be more than an afterthought in an otherwise meaty debate about the future of this country and the world we live in. This is about "your other half" — we are at least half of America. And we vote. And sometimes, our husbands and children and uncles and fathers and nephews and friends ask our opinions about this election. So, gentlemen, keep paying tribute to your wives and daughters. But next time someone asks you a question about women, seize the moment and speak to us. And, Bob, if you have a question about strong women, give us a call.

Gayle Smith is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and Mara Rudman is the senior vice president for strategic planning at the Center for American Progress.

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Mara Rudman

Former Senior Counselor