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Contraception Debate is a Losing Issue for Republicans in 2012, and Barack Obama Knows It

If social conservatives and evangelical Christians had any intention of keeping their pro-life talking points coherent, that intention has gone out the window with their recent furor over contraceptive coverage. By doubling down on the “religious right” to deny women the basic ability to control their reproductive lives, conservatives have openly stated that their platform is all about removing choice and privacy and subverting women’s lives to the dictates of church leaders. Republican candidates should be wary of falling in step with the more vocal critics of this new policy, lest they be associated with the same anti-sex, anti-choice banner that social conservatives have taken up this election cycle.

The controversy centers around standards issued by the Obama administration, which mandate that any institutions receiving federal dollars provide insurance plans that cover the birth control pill or lose funding.

The issue’s current salience shows one of two things: either the nation’s conservatives are panicking by grasping at ineffective wedge issues or the Obama campaign has professionally played the GOP’s fundamentalist base, forcing it to come out and show how anti-sex and anti-choice it really is. Frankly, it’s probably a healthy portion of both.

If we’re talking about the importance of swinging at the right ball when picking your battles, social conservatives just struck out hard.

For those making arguments that this effort violates constitutional principles of non-entanglement between church and state, allow me to provide some legal clarification.

The White House decision only affects institutions receiving federal dollars. It makes absolutely no demands of employers not receiving federal funding; they can choose to deny insurance coverage for whatever they want based on their own personal convictions. Because the benefit requirement hinges on federal dollars, it is not an unconstitutional burden on religious conscience.

The government has near-plenary power over how it spends its money. If it chooses not to subsidize religious institutions that make it more difficult for women to attain basic health benefits, then there is nothing in the Constitution that says otherwise. Nothing in the First Amendment guarantees the right for religions institutions to receive government subsidies to deny women access to contraception. These institutions are free to deny contraceptives all they want, but they have no legal basis for complaining when the government stops giving them handouts.

Attempting to turn this into a battle centered on the Constitution is an intellectually dishonest deflection by conservatives who know they’re losing the messaging fight in society at large. According to Public Policy Polling, only 37% oppose the President’s birth control benefit. Even Catholic voters support the benefit and oppose an exception for Catholic hospitals and universities by a margin of 53%-44%.

When it comes to the 2012 election, this controversy could come out as a big winner for Obama. Independents strongly favor the benefit, 55%-36%, and more Republicans support it (36%) than Democrats oppose it (20%). Getting entangled in this debate is hurting GOP candidates as well, with 40% of voters saying Mitt Romney’s stance on the benefit makes them less likely to vote for him. The numbers don’t bode well for congressional Republicans either, with 58% of voters opposed to potential attempts to strip the benefit.

In reality, this may have been a savvy political play by the Obama campaign team. The benefit’s underlying standards are hardly new. In fact, the standards were issued back in August with minimal fanfare. The ruckus surrounding the denial of over-the-counter Plan B availability may have given conservatives false hope that public opinion was still on their side. Reviving the issue in the context of basic birth control availability could have been a conscious decision by the Obama campaign to focus the national debate on an issue it knows it can win on.

By re-energizing the birth-control debate, Obama may have turned a previously untouchable issue into a politically effective cudgel to wield in the upcoming general election. As Republicans clamor to place themselves in opposition to Obama on the issue without considering the political fallout in the general election, the Obama team has moved away from the far more contentious issue of economic performance and has framed the current election debate around questions of basic women’s rights. 

Photo Credit: phony nickel

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