The Slatest

How Jeb’s “Women’s Issues” Comment Could Hurt Him

Just a few months after stumbling around for a hindsight position on the Iraq war, Jeb Bush on Tuesday found a second war he’s having trouble staying clear of on the campaign trail.

During an appearance at the Southern Baptist Convention on Tuesday, the Republican hopeful was discussing how he would defund Planned Parenthood when he offered up a casual—yet potentially costly—aside. “I’m not sure we need half a billion dollars for women’s issues,” the former Florida governor said. The first blow came, fittingly, from Hillary Clinton, whose campaign took direct aim at Bush on Twitter: “You are absolutely, unequivocally wrong.” Clinton’s fellow Democrats quickly piled on. Bush’s team later issued a statement saying he had “misspoke,” but for a party hoping to avoid the same war-on-women narrative that hurt it in the 2012 election, the damage had already been done.

The potential for the stray comment to hurt Bush in the long term is obvious: The remarks—which were captured on video and preserved on YouTube—were pretty much tailor-made for a general-election attack ad. They aren’t as meme-worthy as Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women,” but liberals won’t have to get nearly as creative to give them some staying power.

The comment wasn’t about some niche demographic, either. The chattering class likes to talk about “women voters” and “women’s issues”—but what they’re really talking about is 53 percent of the votes cast in the 2012 election. These aren’t voters Democrats need to micro-target to find. And the party begins with a healthy head start: The female vote has broken in favor of the Democratic candidate in each of the past six presidential elections. In 2012, President Obama won it by 12 points over Mitt Romney. In 2008 he won it by 14 points over John McCain. Given Clinton’s historic quest to become the nation’s first female president, it stands to reason the gender gap will only grow in 2016. Whether the eventual GOP nominee limits those losses—or exacerbates them—will go a long way toward deciding his electoral fate.

Jeb’s comments come at a particularly opportune time for Clinton given the recent talk about whether she might not be as popular among women as you’d expect. In a Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey from earlier this week, more women had a negative view of Clinton (45 percent) than a positive one (41 percent). Her favorability rating among white women, meanwhile, fell from 44 percent in June to 34 percent this month. Those numbers don’t tell us a whole lot this early in the race, but at the very least they will prompt some handwringing in Clinton-land given that, in order to follow Obama’s path to the White House, Hillary will probably need to attract more women than he did to make up for a likely lower turnout among black voters. Bush’s ad-libbed comments will ease some of that worry. They’re a helpful reminder that the general election isn’t just about the candidate you want to vote for, it’s also the one you want to vote against.

In the short term, Jeb’s remarks represent a different kind of problem for his campaign. He entered the GOP nominating contest as the establishment favorite—a position he still holds even as most of the attention is currently focused on Donald Trump and his outsider operation. But the case for Bush has always been more about him being solid than being stellar. So when his campaign competency takes hits, as it has several times in recent months, donors may start to worry that he’s more successful at private fundraisers than in public.

In May he needed four tries over four days to answer a question his team should have seen coming from 7,000 miles away about whether, with the benefit of hindsight, he would have invaded Iraq in 2003 if he were president then instead of his brother. Two months later he provided another sound bite for the left to run with when he inelegantly said that Americans “need to work longer hours” for the sake of the U.S. economy. (He later clarified he was talking about part-time workers who were looking for more work.)

On their own, these verbal stumbles won’t give the GOP establishment serious second thoughts about putting Bush forward in the general election. But if Jeb adds a few more Romney-esque unforced errors to the pile—say, at the debate this week or on the trail next month—eventually, they might. They certainly have plenty of other options to choose from.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the 2016 campaign.