President Clinton has been leading Bob Dole by anywhere from 20 to 30 points among women. That's not just a gap; it's a canyon. But with Clinton's decision to sign the Republican's welfare repeal bill, many who supported his election four years ago face a real dilemma. How are we to overlook Clinton's betrayal of the poor and disenfranchised?
Certainly, the existence of the gender gap should come as no surprise. Just look at how women have fared under the Dole/Gingrich-led Congress compared to our progress during the previous two years, after Clinton took office along with unprecedented numbers of women and women's rights supporters.
Clinton and Congress teamed up in 1993 and 1994 to pass the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Violence Against Women Act, a new law protecting women and healthcare workers from anti-abortion terrorists and record funding for women's health. Overall, more than 40 percent of Clinton's appointments are women, including some of his top policy advisors.
In contrast, immediately after the 1994 elections, the new Republican Congress began its wrecking-ball campaign to dismantle the progress for women. Despite earlier assurances that it was not "pork," for instance, Republicans tried to slash Violence Against Women Act funding by nearly 70 percent.
The new Congress featured attacks on nutrition programs for pregnant women, infants and children, Head Start and childhood immunization programs; threats to student loans and education; efforts to cut family planning and Medicare. Only overwhelming grassroots pressure salvaged some of these programs.
And only a presidential veto stopped a callous congressional vote to outlaw a rarely-used, late-term abortion procedure, without adequate protection for the woman's life or any concern for her health.
There's clearly a difference between Clinton and Dole. It's the difference between having more Supreme Court Justices like Ruth Bader Ginsberg or more like Antonin Scalia. Ginsberg's majority opinion on behalf of the Court gave the Virginia Military Institute an ultimatum: stop taking tax dollars or stop excluding women; Scalia's dissent was scathing.
But in some ways it feels like Clinton came around and sweet-talked us in 1992 and then didn't respect us in the morning.
In 1993, NOW President Patricia Ireland and others were arrested outside the White House protesting President Clinton's so-called compromise on lesbian, gay and bi-sexuals in the military, a policy that has resulted in more, not less harassment and dismissals. This year the President said he would sign a bill to outlaw same-sex marriage.
On Aug. 1, NOW activists and hundreds of protesters from our allies were back outside the White House. Clinton had just pledged to sign the Republican's punishing welfare repeal bill. We began our "Hungry for Justice" campaign with a fast and vigil in solidarity with the millions of people who will swell the ranks of the poor and hungry because of this bill -- mothers and children, the elderly, people with disabilities and people with HIV/AIDS, legal immigrants.
The White House vigil ended three weeks later with another vigorous protest the day Clinton signed the bill. The campaign will continue into the elections as NOW's PACs and activists work to support feminist challengers and incumbents who had the courage to vote correctly, out of their convictions.
Women are not happy with politicians whose proposals would continue widening the gap between the rich and super-rich, on one side, and the middle class and the poor, on the other. We know first-hand how hard it is to balance work and family, to care for a newborn child or an elderly parent, to be in poverty or just a paycheck away.
And we see through the diversionary tactics of cynical politicians who try to blame "undeserving" welfare moms and immigrants or "unqualified" women and people of color for taking our tax dollars or our jobs. We see the Dole-sponsored bill and the California ballot measure 209 to repeal affirmative action for what they are -- a sneak attack on our basic rights to an equal education, equal employment opportunity and a fair shot at government contracts.
Yes, women want a balanced budget and lower taxes. But we don't want politicians who propose tax cuts for the wealthiest individuals and corporations and spending cuts for women and children, the elderly and the poor.
Clinton may be the option for some of us again this election year, but he's not the answer. We are. Confronted with the evil of two lessers, Clinton and Dole, many of us will vote for an imperfect Clinton and work hard for a better Congress.
At a time when some argue for a return to narrow, single-issue politics or feel they cannot stomach electoral politics at all, NOW's direction continues to be toward deepening the ties among progressive movements and moving more of us into elected office. If we ever want a better choice than Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dumber on election day, more of us must run for office, be active in campaigns and vote.
Principled and pragmatic reasons compel us to join forces. Religious and political extremists have pulled both parties further to the right, and their agenda crosses boundaries that have traditionally divided us along lines of sex, sexual orientation, race, class, ethnicity and age. If we stand together, we can withstand their attacks and continue our forward progress.
Nineteen ninety-six will be etched into political annals as the year voters either rally against the politics of hate or succumb to the divisive tactics of extremists. We cannot turn away from electoral politics or each other. We cannot afford to be cynical or isolated. We need the strength of our idealism and our numbers. Together we are a majority and we cannot fail.