Political strategists will be looking closely at two groups to see if they will change their voting behavior in response to this debate. The Democrats are fairly obviously trying to use the issue to court single women. They vote heavily for the Democrats — much more so than married women, who sometimes even vote narrowly for Republicans. But they have not traditionally been very interested in politics. The hope for Democrats is that the false drama of a war on contraception will motivate these women to show up to vote.
But it’s not clear it’s working out this way. On March 10, the Washington Post ran a front-page story suggesting that the mandate had caused women to move toward Obama — though it conceded that their movement toward him preceded the emergence of the issue. In fact, almost all of that movement preceded it. Two days later, the Post released the results of its own polling, which showed both women and men turning slightly against Obama during the weeks of the mandate debate. A New York Times/CBS News poll found that women, by a 53 percent–to–38 percent margin, believe that religious institutions should be able to opt out of covering birth control; a 46 percent–to–44 percent plurality believe that any employer should have this right.
The risk for the Democrats is that even if they increase turnout among a portion of their base, they will also alienate Catholic swing voters. The Democrats believe that the liberal Catholics’ endorsement of the mandate will help them with this group. In the long run, this type of divide-and-conquer strategy cannot work, because it depletes the credibility of liberals within the Catholic Church. If more and more Catholics come to see liberal Catholics as not only unwilling to defend their church’s teachings but unwilling to defend the institution from assault, the liberals will have fewer and fewer voters to deliver to Democratic politicians and thus be less and less worth co-opting. In the short run, however, there is no question that the split among Catholics helps the administration.
Opponents of the mandate can take several steps to increase their chances of persuading voters to side with them. Too many of them have acquiesced to the White House/media line that what’s at issue is a “contraceptive mandate.” The mandate also covers the drug ella, sometimes dubbed “the week-after pill,” which induces abortion. It is to the great credit of non-Catholics such as Senator Roy Blunt (R., Mo.), the sponsor of the Senate bill to overturn the mandate, that they have stood in defense of the freedom of Catholic institutions. But it is not just Catholics who object to abortion drugs, and highlighting their inclusion in the mandate would broaden the anti-mandate coalition. It is also worth noting that if the administration is correct in claiming it has the legal authority to impose this mandate, it has the authority to require coverage of surgical abortions as well. Only political prudence has stayed its hand so far.
Voters generally dislike arguments about social issues, and tend to oppose whichever side they perceive as the aggressor in a fight over them. Proponents of the mandate have skillfully exploited this fact: That’s the point of their claims that Republicans are waging a war on women, and it’s why the Limbaugh comments were so damaging. During the debate over Blunt’s amendment, Democrats made it sound as though it would work a radical change in American law by allowing employers to veto their employees’ contraceptive decisions. Republicans did not do enough to make the case that all they were doing was preserving current policy. From the dawn of the republic until this very moment, no federal law has required any employer to provide insurance with coverage he finds objectionable. This freedom has not left Americans deprived of contraception or forced them to get permission from their employers to use it. It is this benign status quo that the Obama administration’s regulation will upset.
Republicans would also be wise to reiterate their support for access to contraception. Writing in Bloomberg View, libertarian journalist Virginia Postrel has argued that there is no good reason to continue to require women to get prescriptions to buy the birth-control pill. Perhaps Republicans should undercut the Democratic attack by advocating a Food and Drug Administration review of the policy.
The mandate should also be tied to Obamacare, the unpopular law that gave rise to it and that it perfectly illustrates. (The mandate authorized the Secretary of Health and Human Services to determine what “preventive services” insurance should have to cover, and she decided to include contraception, sterilization, and abortion drugs. Note, however, that even the Congress of 2009–10, the most liberal one in decades, refrained from actually enacting this allegedly popular, commonsensical mandate.) The law places coercive authority over sensitive matters in the hands of unelected bureaucrats, and it has the potential to cause both needless strife and diminutions of freedom.
The political parties are in effect placing a bet on whether Americans will mostly come to see the mandate in terms of religious freedom or in terms of women’s right to contraception. Some of the factors that make the Democratic bet look smart right now will fade over time. Santorum, for example, is likely to be out of the picture in the fall. The Catholic bishops have staying power, if they choose to use it. They can ask every parish in the country to include, among the prayers of the faithful at Mass, the plea that political leaders will respect the conscience rights of religious institutions — and they can do it every week. The narrative of imperiled access to contraception, on the other hand, may be hard to sustain for an entire year, contradicting as it does the lived reality of American life. The administration is committing a crime against conscience. It may turn out to have committed a political blunder as well.
— Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor of National Review. This article appears in the April 2, 2012, issue of National Review.