It's usually been the Romney campaign that has squelched its own momentum and advantage in the hours after a major turn in the dynamics of the race. The massive victory in Florida was followed the next morning by Romney's "not concerned about the very poor" riff on the social safety net. His decisive Illinois primary win was followed up by a staffer comparing Romney's primary policy positions to an "etch-a-sketch."
But the day after Rick Santorum dropped out of the race, it was a new narrative for a new general election race. Democratic consultant Hilary Rosen did her best to squander President Obama's swelled advantage among women voters by igniting the politically volatile mix of ambivalence, guilt, and defensiveness that comes with discussions about work after motherhood.
On Wednesday night, Rosen appeared on AC360, where she discussed Mitt Romney's wife, Ann. She told Anderson Cooper:
"His wife has actually never worked a day in her life...She’s never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing in terms of how do we feed our kids, how do we send them to school and how do we — why we worry about their future."
Rosen has since apologized, and Obama campaign advisors have made clear they considered the comments out of bounds, but these moments stick. Just ask Hillary Clinton. Twenty years ago last month, she famously dismissed stay-at-home motherhood. "I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession," she declared to television cameras.
"The still distinct memory of Clinton's unsavvy comment speaks to a deep-seated cultural experience of loss," history professor Kirsten Swinth wrote for CNN to mark the anniversary of Clinton's polarizing gaffe. "With more than two-thirds of mothers in the labor force today, few families are immune to negotiating child care and paid work. The plate of chocolate chip cookies embodies our desire for parenting and family space free of the demands of our paid jobs."
Ann Romney has already demonstrated a knack for tapping into those nostalgic longings. Ann Romney exudes warmth and authenticity in front of crowds of voters, a marked contrast to the sometimes stilted delivery of her husband. And the campaign's played that up on the stump, deploying her to personalize Mitt Romney as a devoted husband and committed father - and a man who would never question the importance of her work as a mother.
"He would remind me when I was exasperated that my job was more important than his job," Ann Romney often said on the stump with her husband, including at a December stop in Iowa. "And I love that. And the cool thing was he actually meant it. Now, he was big hot shot consultant in those days and well paid and everybody thought he was the smartest guy in the room. But when he came in the door he knew that I ruled."
During the primary campaign, Mitt Romney's most tone-deaf moments played right into the caricature set by his opponents of an aloof, out-of-touch political opportunist — from his talk about friends owning NASCAR teams, a "humorous" story about his dad laying off workers in Michigan, the now-infamous "I like to fire people" about insurance companies. Now, as the Romney campaign turns its focus to the general, Rosen played right into Ann Romney's primary pitch by questioning whether the work of stay-at-home mothers really counts.
Hillary Clinton, of course, quickly saw her error and saw she needed to reframe her comments — and her image. After the cookie remark, she accepted Family Circle's cookie face-off challenge with Barbara Bush.