I was on MSNBC a short while ago with a Democratic strategist who insisted that her party held the upper hand in the debate over the Obama administration’s attempt to force religious groups to offer contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients to their employees. (She didn’t describe the policy quite that way, of course.) Several arguments have been advanced for this view: Contraception is widely practiced and uncontroversial with the public at large; polls show that most people and even a majority of Catholics approve of the new rule; Republicans will come across as trying to curb women’s access to contraception if they fight the rule; and the administration can easily find a compromise that Republicans would look (more) extreme in rejecting.
Here’s why I find these points unpersuasive as applied to this dispute. First, that poll isn’t that great for the Democrats. Look closer, and you’ll see that only a three-point plurality of Americans believes that religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should have to cover contraception (the poll doesn’t mention abortion or sterilization). A small majority of Catholics disagrees. And this is at the beginning of the debate. Rasmussen – using wording that is, admittedly, more favorable for opponents — finds significantly worse results for the Democrats.
But even polling that (hypothetically) showed strong public and Catholic approval for the policy would not put Democrats in the clear, because what matters is how many people might be moved to change their votes based on the issue. I am sure there are plenty of Americans who would vote for Obama in part because he has picked a fight with religious groups over contraceptive mandates — but these people are already voting for Obama. My hunch is that there are, on the other hand, independent voters and even some Democrats who have serious qualms about this policy. And I don’t think Americans are going to be persuaded that there is some crisis of lack of access to contraception. Note that the compromise the Democrats are talking about–not forcing religious groups to provide contraceptive (etc.) coverage, but forcing them to tell employees where they can get subsidized coverage for free–is based on the premise that contraception is easily available.
Two more things tell against the liberal spin on the politics of this issue. First, Republicans are united on it while Democrats are split, with Tim Kaine and Joe Manchin the latest defectors. That’s usually a sign that the united party has taken the winning position. Second, the Democratic talk about compromise is itself evidence of political weakness.
Update: Typo fixed.