By November, nobody is going to remember who Sandra Fluke is. That’s what Republicans need to keep in mind as they judge the political impact of opposing the Obama administration’s latest health-care mandate. The issue is likely to help Republicans in the fall, if they can keep their wits about them.
They’re not doing that right now. Instead, they’re overreacting to two mistakes that opponents of the mandate have made. Both involved Fluke. After the Obama administration announced that it would require almost all employers to offer insurance that covers contraception, abortion drugs, and sterilization, whether or not those employers have moral objections, Representative Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) held hearings before the government-oversight committee he chairs. The Democrats requested that Fluke, a Georgetown Law School student and liberal activist who favors the mandate, testify. But the request was denied as too late. Since one of Issa’s panels had no female witnesses, the Democrats then used the incident as an illustration for their story that Republicans are waging a “war on women” by resisting the mandate. Press coverage was brutal. Since then, Issa has been telling his House colleagues to avoid the issue, and many of them have done so.
Then Rush Limbaugh gave the Democrats an even better illustration by calling Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” and saying that she should broadcast her sexual encounters so that those forced to pay for her contraception could view them. After several days of intense criticism, he apologized. In the interim, President Obama called Fluke to offer her moral support. Republicans got even wobblier. As the Limbaugh controversy raged, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska) told reporters that she now regretted voting to overturn Obama’s mandate.
A strand of liberal opinion has long insisted that social conservatives are opposed to contraception — are waging a “war” on it, even — and that the public would rise up against them if informed of the fact. The conjunction of the fight over the mandate and the success of Rick Santorum in the Republican primaries helped them make their case. Santorum had said in the fall that if he were elected president he would denounce contraception. He has subsequently backed off this cause, and no other Republican of note ever adopted it, but his comment lent credence to the liberal spin.
The White House initially seemed surprised that liberal Catholic journalists and politicians had joined the bishops of the Church in criticizing the mandate, but it quickly found a way to divide Catholics. It announced that it would at some future point issue new rules that would supposedly enable religious institutions to avoid paying for services they oppose. Instead the insurers would pay for them. To call this arrangement an accounting gimmick would be an insult to CPAs. But some liberal Catholics — notably the head of the Catholic Health Association, who had previously given her blessing to Obamacare — were willing to sign off on the administration’s attack on conscience rights as long as it lightly disguised it. Media coverage has tended to treat the administration’s PR stunt as though it were a substantive compromise.
Having neutralized some opponents and watched Republicans stumble, the Democrats think that they are winning this fight. Democratic pollster Doug Schoen thinks that “the issue of access to contraception” could cost Republicans the chance to take the White House and the Senate this fall. Timothy Noah writes in The New Republic that Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) has damaged himself as a vice-presidential pick by helping to lead the opposition to the mandate. Noah’s colleague Alec MacGillis warns that Senator Scott Brown (R., Mass.) will rue the day Republicans joined this fight.
Inconveniently for this thesis, Senator Brown has been moving up in the polls as this battle has raged. There is no Senate race in the country where the issue has been more prominent. Brown has taken a strong stand against the mandate and gotten criticized for it by his leading Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Warren. In a strategy memo released for public consumption, Brown’s campaign manager, Jim Barnett, argued that Warren had hurt herself by becoming a liberal “culture warrior” on the issue. Looking at the polls, Boston Globe reporter Frank Phillips concluded in early March that “Brown may have benefited from his positions on social issues in the last few weeks, such as the one over whether Catholic institutions should be forced to provide contraception in their health care plans for workers.”
Barnett’s memo noted that in standing against the mandate, Brown stood with three Senate Democrats: Bob Casey (Pa.), Joe Manchin (W. Va.), and Ben Nelson (Neb.). Only one Republican moderate, Olympia Snowe (Maine), voted to keep the mandate. Add Murkowski to Snowe and there’s still nothing like the pattern you would expect if this issue were cutting strongly in favor of the Democrats.
Polling does not suggest overwhelming public support for the Democratic position, either. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in early March asked respondents what they thought of “the federal government requiring health insurance plans for the employees at Catholic and other religiously affiliated hospitals and colleges to offer free birth control coverage and mandat[ing] that the health insurance company pays for that cost.” Result: 38 percent favored that idea, and 45 percent opposed it. A question that mentioned that the morning-after pill would also have to be covered yielded 34 percent support and 49 percent opposition. The Hill, a newspaper centered on Congress, released a poll on February 23 that asked respondents whether what it described as the “recent contraception debate” had made them more likely to vote for Obama or for the Republican candidate. Thirty-five percent were more pro-Obama, 36 percent more pro-Republican. That was a pre-slutgate poll, and the results might be different now — but if so it would just underscore the point that when the country is considering the mandate itself, rather than side issues, it is not a clear winner for the Democrats.