Someday soon, this presidential no man's land we're inhabiting will disappear and we will have a new president. Assuming for the moment that man is Texas Gov. George W. Bush, he will become the first man to gain the nation's top office in 20 years without the women's vote. What does a Bush administration portend for women?
The women's vote broke down this way. Women were 52 percent of voters this year. According to network exit polls, 54 percent of women voted for Vice President Al Gore, and 43 percent voted for Bush, delivering the women's vote to Gore by an 11-point spread.
Just prior to the election, a variety of polls showed Bush leading among married white women by about a five-point margin. These women tend, more than any other group, to be upper-income and financially secure. So if the governor has some fence-mending to do, it is with single, minority, middle- and lower-income women.
Now, compare the gender gap in 2000 to that in recent elections. In 1996, Bill Clinton won his second term with 54 percent of women's support, versus 38 percent for former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. In 1992, Bill Clinton won his first election with the support of 45 percent of women voters, while 37 percent of women voted for former President George Bush (and 17 percent of women supported Ross Perot). Why did so many more women vote for Clinton in 1996 than 1992? Because Clinton appointed a record number of women to federal office and expanded federal laws and programs that a majority of women care about — from funding for women's health research to support for abortion rights.
Bush could react in one of two ways to the fact women did not support his presidential bid. He could ignore women and women's issues, appointing only a sprinkling of women to Cabinet posts and cutting government programs that women depend upon. Or he could take the dramatic step, for example, of appointing a woman secretary of defense.
We saw many signs during the campaign of which subjects important to women will be front and center in a Bush administration. The first three are education, education and education. On that subject, the governor would score big with women just by mediating the war between conservatives (who support school vouchers) and progressives (who want more federal help for public schools). If, instead of slashing federal funding for public schools and aggressively supporting voucher programs, Bush embraces public schools and pledges to help fix them, he could turn around a lot of women.
With no popular mandate, Bush needs to reach out to the group that gave him so little support. Bush should take a page from Vice President Al Gore's campaign platform and do for women some of what Gore would have done for them. That is, of course, unless the vice president defies the odds and wins the White House himself.
Bonnie Erbe, host of the PBS program "To the Contrary," writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail bonnieerbe@CompuServe.com.