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How the GOP Can Woo the Ladies

By Kimberley Strassel

Hillary has herself. Barack has Oprah. John Edwards has his wife, Elizabeth. And what secret weapon do Republican presidential candidates have to curry the all-important "women's vote"?

(Cue silence.)

Expect to hear a lot about lady voters over the next few months, though most of it from Democrats. Women make up 60% of the left's primary electorate, and the front-runners are already going to the mat for their vote. It's why Ms. Clinton has six full-time staffers for women's outreach; why Mr. Obama sports a women's "policy committee"; and why Bill Richardson recently told a cheering mob that "women are better workers than men" (you go, Bill!).

Come next year one of these folks will be the nominee, and at that point will train a formidable outreach machine on the general female electorate. They'll mean business. Democrats understand that they need women to offset what tends to be a permanent advantage for Republicans among male voters. Al Gore's 54% women's vote got him a crack at the Supreme Court. John Kerry's 51% women's vote only got him back to the Senate.

A smart Republican candidate would be doing Twister moves to deny Democrats those votes. Yet what's extraordinary is that no GOP contender has yet recognized the huge opportunity to redefine "women's" politics for the 21st century. That's a double failing given that the GOP could win modern women by doing little more than tailoring their beliefs in freer markets to the problems women struggle most with today.

The Democrats' own views of what counts for "women's issues" are stuck back in the disco days, about the time Ms. Clinton came of political age. Under the title "A Champion for Women," the New York senator's Web site promises the usual tired litany of "equal pay" and a "woman's right to choose." Mr. Richardson pitches a new government handout for women on "family leave" and waxes nostalgic for the Equal Rights Amendment. Give these Boomers some bell bottoms and "The Female Eunuch," and they'd feel right at home. Polls show Ms. Clinton today gets her best female support from women her age and up.

The rest of the female population has migrated into 2007. Undoubtedly quite a few do care about abortion rights and the Violence Against Women Act. But for the 60% of women who today both scramble after a child and hold a job, these culture-war touchpoints aren't their top voting priority. Their biggest concerns, not surprisingly, hew closely to those of their male counterparts: the war in Iraq, health care, the economy. But following close behind are issues that are more unique to working women and mothers. Therein rests the GOP opportunity.

Here's an example of how a smart Republican could morph an old-fashioned Democratic talking point into a modern-day vote winner. Ms. Clinton likes to bang on about "inequality" in pay. The smart conservative would explain to a female audience that there indeed is inequality, and that the situation is grave. Only the bad guy isn't the male boss; it's the progressive tax code.

Most married women are second-earners. That means their income is added to that of their husband's, and thus taxed at his highest marginal rate. So the married woman working as a secretary keeps less of her paycheck than the single woman who does the exact same job. This is the ultimate in "inequality," yet Democrats constantly promote the very tax code that punishes married working women. In some cases, the tax burdens and child-care expenses for second-earners are so burdensome they can't afford a career. But when was the last time a Republican pointed out that Ms. Clinton was helping to keep ladies in the kitchen?

For that matter, when was the last time a GOP candidate pointed out that their own free-market policies could help alleviate this problem? Should President Bush's tax cuts expire, tens of thousands of middle-class women will see more of their paychecks disappear into the maw of their husband's higher bracket. A really brave candidate would go so far as to promise eliminating this tax bias altogether. Under a flat tax, second-earner women would pay the same rate as unmarried women and the guy down the hall. Let Democrats bang the worn-out drum of a "living wage." Republicans should customize their low-tax message to explain how they directly put more money into female pockets.

Here's another one: Ask almost any working woman what the toughest part of her life is, and she'll say the complications of scheduling both work and family life. What makes that task so tough is a dusty piece of legislation called the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires that hourly workers who put in more than 40 hours a week get overtime. Some women like overtime. But in a 1995 poll, an extraordinary 81% said they'd prefer compensatory time off. Put another way, many women would like to pack 45 hours into the first four days of work, then knock off early on Friday to catch Jimmy's soccer match.

The mod term for this is "flex time" and Democrats pay it lip service. But what the left won't mention--and Republicans have failed to mention--is that Democrats are the obstacle to changing the overtime law. Organized labor likes the 40-hour-week law, and union leaders prefer to be the ones to arrange any flex-time agreements on behalf of their members. So in 1997, when Republican Sen. John Ashcroft put forward legislation to allow flexible scheduling in the private workforce, it was Democrats, at the beck of unions, who killed it. Some intelligent GOP candidate might want to consider adopting the flex-time cause, or at the least re-crafting the usual "flexible labor law" jargon into real-world examples of how flexibility helps women.

The majority of health-care decisions are made by women, yet neither Rudy Giuliani nor Mitt Romney has explained how their innovative proposals to put individuals back in charge of care would help women in particular. No candidate has explained that only through private Social Security accounts will women ever see the full fruits of their payroll taxes.

This isn't to suggest Republicans treat women as a "special interest" or a monolithic bloc. But there are votes to be had for the candidate who owns the quotidian concerns of this population. And there are future generations of women voters to be won by the party that progresses beyond the stale rhetoric of women's "rights" and crafts a new language of women's "choice" and "opportunity" and "ownership."

Come on guys; the women are waiting.

Ms. Strassel is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.

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