New York Times column: What Republicans Have to Learn From the Women’s March

On Saturday, millions of women — and men — marched in cities around the country, and the world, in response to the inauguration of Donald J. Trump. At the rally in Washington, demonstrators chanted: “We won’t go away. Welcome to your first day!”

Though the march had been in the works for months, even its organizers were surprised by the turnout. Whether President Trump, newly ensconced in the White House, was surprised, or even noticed, is unclear. Given his reputation, he may not even care. But the Republican Party should.

Though the tone of the march was decidedly left wing, it was made up of women of every background — black, white and brown; moderate and radical; urban and rural; rich and poor; Christian, Muslim and Jew — united in their belief in women’s rights. More important, perhaps, than their message was their intent: Many saw themselves as the nucleus of a legitimate opposition movement that could have a real impact on policy and elections for years to come.

The success of the march, despite having no central leadership, demonstrates the potential for its message to rally grass-roots activism. It’s reminiscent of another grass-roots movement, started in opposition to a new president, eight years ago: the Tea Party.

There are obvious differences. The Tea Party was ideologically unified and further to the right than the women’s march was to the left. And of course, we know the Tea Party succeeded; it’s too early yet to know what will happen with the women’s march. But with anti-Trump sentiment already aboil, there’s every indication that the march will become the movement’s touchstone. Unfortunately, the Republicans have begun to make the same mistakes that Barack Obama and Democrats made with the Tea Party in 2009 and 2010.

Democrats responded to Tea Party supporters by mocking them, dismissing them and even belittling them. The left said that the Tea Party demonstrators were bitter, uninformed, even ignorant. No effort was made to work with them, and when their ranks began to swell, Democrats called them crazy extremists. This type of talk only fanned the flames of dissent, and the Tea Party thrived. It grew in size and strength, becoming a major grass-roots movement. The results were three catastrophic congressional elections for the Democrats, in 2010, 2014 and 2016.

Now, with the rise of this new movement, Republicans are taking the same path as Democrats did with the Tea Party in 2009. We are calling the people who participated in the Women’s March outside of the mainstream, and laughing at their actions. The march seems to represent exactly the sort of target the right like to deride — feminists, millennials, “social justice warriors.” Congress and the White House were largely silent, while their proxies in the news media took potshots — saying, for example, that American women should “grow up,” and that women in other countries have it much worse. While such comments might be low hanging fruit for retweets, they are no way to engage with legitimate, widely shared views, even if you disagree with them.

But it’s not too late. Elected Republicans must start meeting with the Women’s March leaders and engage in a meaningful dialogue.

Somewhat surprisingly, many in the anti-abortion community have already aligned with this movement. They sought to march with them on Saturday. Sadly, some members of the far left in the march vocally opposed their participation, a tension that we Republicans could exploit.

What issues can Republicans and conservatives work with this new movement? When you look closely at the movement, there are a lot. Student debt affects women disproportionately because of wage inequity, so that’s an easy starting point.

So would working to ensure pay equity and reduce gender discrimination. Another easy one: Elected Republicans in state legislatures (the majority of them being in party control) should seek to make feminine hygiene products, such as tampons, exempt from sales tax.

This doesn’t have to be anti-Trump. In fact, Republicans can use these conversations as an opportunity to highlight aspects of the president’s agenda that benefit women — his paid maternity leave plan, his education plans, even his infrastructure plan, with its emphasis on income inequality.

But it can’t be just about trying to sell pre-made policy in pro-woman terms. We need to actually listen to the ideas and requests of the Women’s March movement. Some areas will be difficult for us Republicans to get behind. But even a conversation, a negotiation that takes the movement seriously, would put the party in a better position than the Democrats were vis-à-vis the Tea Party.

Working to address issues of importance to the Women’s March movement will not only help to protect Republicans from backlash manifesting itself in future election losses, but also combat the falsehood that the party is engaged in a “war on women.”

It is imperative that we Republicans seize the initiative and inoculate ourselves against the damage the Women’s March movement could cause, especially since it is only growing in numbers and strength. This new political faction is already larger than the Tea Party was at this stage.

Republicans have seen the power that grass-roots activism, organized around passionate opposition to a president and his agenda, can have in a fractured electorate. Over the last eight years, our party has cultivated, and benefited from, such energy. Let’s hope we learned from it, too.

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