Carlson: Republicans need women, but don't know how to talk to them

The Republican Party spent much of its winter meeting last week adopting reforms suggested by its 2013 selfie, which was a snapshot of all that is wrong with the party ("scary," "narrow minded," dominated by "stuffy old men," and unlikely to win nationally unless it attracts minorities and women).

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus has unfurled his plan to fix all that. Truncate the number of primaries and limit those that are winner-take-all? Check. Have fewer debates with fewer clowns on stage? Check. Coronate the nominee at a convention that is held in early summer rather than around Labor Day? Check.

The party is also at pains to be done with its "we're just not that into you" attitude toward women. The campaign committee is holding remedial classes to teach male candidates how to talk to female voters and how to run against a woman, a challenge they are very likely to face in 2016. You're in a deep hole if you don't know how to talk to more than half the electorate, but you have to start somewhere.

That effort was undercut when former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a known recidivist on women's issues, was given a plum speaking role at the meeting and when Priebus singled out Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky for praise. Paul is another known wild card. He gained notoriety for musing about whether civil-rights laws were the right way to go. Maybe women shouldn't even vote.

You've got to hand it to Huckabee for vividness. He created a new character for women to ponder: Uncle Sugar. "If the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it," he said.

Yuck! We can now add incest and molestation at a family gathering to the images of women in heat that Republicans have put in our heads. In 2012, women went against the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, 55 percent to 44 percent.

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Huckabee could help push that to 60-40.

The party shouldn't be surprised by Huckabee. He was the last and loudest supporter of former Representative Todd Akin of Missouri, whose confusion about female anatomy cost him a 2012 Senate race. Akin mused over what constituted "legitimate rape" and how women came equipped with a built-in defense against getting pregnant if attacked.

Such thoughts don't pop out of nowhere. They are in the Republican atmosphere just waiting to be blurted out. Huckabee is no backbencher. He's mulling another presidential run.

As with Holocaust comparisons in almost any context (see: Tom Perkins), women and their reproductive systems should be off-limits to male Republicans. Rush Limbaugh, the party's unofficial leader, said that a woman who thought contraception should be covered by insurance was a "slut." (Viagra, by the way, is covered in many policies.)

"It makes her a prostitute," he said of Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University student who testified in favor of such coverage. "She's having so much sex she can't afford the contraception."

Remarkably, he then entered into Uncle Sugar country. He pleaded for Fluke to "post the videos online." To round out a bad week, Paul said Sunday on "Meet the Press" that "if there was a war on women, I think they won." He goes on to cite anecdotal evidence: "The women in my family are incredibly successful. I have a niece at Cornell vet school, and 85 percent of the young people there are women. In law school, 60 percent are women. In med school, 55 percent. My younger sister is an OB-GYN with six kids and doing great." He fails to note that the pay gap between male and female physicians grew to $50,000 in 2010. It's similar for lawyers. We don't know about dog doctors.

In his view, the real war on women was conducted by Democrats who, along with the news media, let it pass when former President Bill Clinton engaged in "predatory" sexual behavior. I seem to remember the media having a field day, and I don't recall any Democrats condoning his behavior. Still, it's one argument to make when there aren't a lot of options.

Paul and Huckabee's remarks followed by just a few days an attack on Wendy Davis, the Texas gubernatorial candidate, who suddenly was a bad woman for getting divorced at 21, rather than 19, as she'd said. In addition, because she had help from her second husband, Republicans accused her of lying about her up- from-the-bootstraps story.

Would any male politician be questioned about his mettle and pluck if he was aided by his stay-at-home wife? For all his plans to broaden the party's appeal, Priebus came off as a halfhearted reformer. Huckabee's "good message," he said, was "overshadowed by a choice of words that was just a little bit off, that's all." As for Paul, revisiting Bill Clinton's mistake as a way to show concern for all womankind and incriminate Hillary is daring but not wise.

Republicans don't have an answer to Freud's timeless question about what women want, but they sure know how to jump on what they don't want.

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Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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