THE MORE WE IGNORE THEM, THE CLOSER THEY GET
Yes, I've been talking about Rick Santorum as someone the general electorate wouldn't immediately laugh off the national stage -- but I've done so in large part because I assumed his obsession with the alleged evils of non-marital and non-procreative sex could be kept in the background as he campaigned. He'd talk mostly about the economy and foreign policy, the rest of America would talk mostly about the economy and foreign policy, and lots of people would go to the polls not really grasping that he's extremely far to the right on social issues. After all, social issues simply haven't been on most people's agendas in the past few years ... right?
Except that the right seems to want to pick a fight on these issues, for reasons I can't begin to understand. Why would you want to do this when you might be about to nominate a presidential candidate whose most profound difference with swing voters is on precisely these issues? Why draw attention to that in this way?
The furor over President Obama's birth control mandate has swiftly entered a new plane, with supporters and opponents alike calling the subject a potent weapon for the November elections and mounting what they say will be prolonged campaigns to shape public perceptions of the issue: Is it about religious liberty or women's health?
Roman Catholic bishops, evangelicals, other conservatives and the Republican presidential candidates have dismissed as meaningless the effort by President Obama last week to soften the rule, which requires that employees of religiously affiliated institutions like schools and hospitals, but not churches, receive free contraception in their health plans.
Sensing an opportunity, Congressional Republicans have leapt into the fray. An amendment to block any health mandate that violates a business owner's beliefs is before the Senate -- and a target of intense lobbying. A House committee is holding a hearing on Thursday to ask, "Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?"
But the political repercussions could be much wider. "This was an unexpected gift," said Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and a Republican strategist.
And at the hearings this morning, Congressman Darrell Issa insultingly refused to allow a pro-choice woman to testify, defying congressional custom (Democrats on the panel had requested that she be heard):
Ranking committee member Elijah Cummings (D-MD) had asked Issa to include a female witness at the hearing, but the Chairman refused, arguing that "As the hearing is not about reproductive rights and contraception but instead about the Administration's actions as they relate to freedom of religion and conscience, he believes that Ms. Fluke is not an appropriate witness."
And so Cummings, along with the Democratic women on the panel, took their request to the hearing room, demanding that Issa consider the testimony of a female college student. But the California congressman insisted that the hearing should focus on the rules' alleged infringement on "religious liberty," not contraception coverage, and denied the request. Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) walked out of the hearing in protest of his decision, citing frustration over the fact that the first panel of witnesses consisted only of male religious leaders against the rule.
And this comes at a time when state legislatures, even in battleground states like Virginia, are pursuing personhood bills and mandatory ultrasounds before abortions. Why?
I think the right is mostly making short-sighted calculations about how to pursue this year's campaigns -- "Well, if the economy is getting better, and Obama got bin Laden killed, all we have left is abortion." But that's absurd when "all you have left" is potentially very unpopular. This is stuff you keep at the state level, assuming most voters won't notice -- you don't trumpet it in a presidential election year when your pro-choice opponent is rising in the polls (and your current front-runner's biggest weakness is that voters who pay attention to him -- which could be all voters soon -- know he's a huge prig).
Is this an attempt to give cover to Mitt Romney if he's the nominee, because it's feared that he won't turn out the base otherwise? Is it Catholic and Protestant organizations just opportunistically trolling for wingnut support and cash? Is it a woeful misreading of the electorate, the result of epistemic closure?
I don't know. But I think making this the focus of GOP efforts in 2012 is a disastrous idea. Even Santorum could make it a race if he were seen as a guy with right-wing economic ideas and a coal-miner grandfather who happened to be sexually square. But put that last bit first and he's really, really doomed -- as is the entire GOP no matter who tops the ticket, if the right keeps this up.