Political Animal


March 15, 2012 4:09 PM If They Had Some Ham….

By Ed Kilgore

I admire a good, analytical look at an emotional issue, particularly by someone whose political allies seem to be careening around in highly emotional confusion. So I read with interest Ramesh Ponnuru’s advice to Republicans about how they can still win on the contraception mandate issue.

Ramesh is a cool customer, so his critique of his friends is very straight-up:

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.

He then goes on to describe the ammunition given to progressives by Darrell Issa and Rush Limbaugh, before suggesting that the bigger problem is that conservatives have let the fight become “about” support for or opposition to contraception, rather than the mandate itself and its alleged offense to Catholics (or at least the Catholic hierarchy). As a sign that the issue is still salvagable, Ponnuru points to the relatively robust postion of anti-mandate activist Scott Brown, and to polling showing that public opinion on the contraception mandate is mixed.

So how can conservatives get back in the saddle on this issue, other than shutting up about Sandra Fluke? Well, says Ponnuru, they should (a) focus on the mandate’s inclusion of “abortion pills,” (b) keep emphasizing its relationship to the general overreaching involved in “ObamaCare;” (c) do everything possible to paint the administration as the aggressor in the dispute; and (d) work to stiffen the spines of Catholics fighting the mandate against their “liberal Catholic” sell-out friends (not Ramesh’s words, but the implication is clear).

This is all sound advice, but it all reminds me of the old saying: “If I had some ham, I could make a ham sandwich, if I had some bread.” Will conservatives shut up about Fluke and in general, about women wanting contraception coverage as sluts? Don’t know for sure, but aside from the continuing war of words to defend poor Rush Limbaugh (and perhaps start a counter-boycott of liberal gabbers in his defense), the conservative blogosphere lit up today with new, even more bizarre attacks on Fluke (some even focusing on her “socialist Jew” boyfriend, believe it or not).

Making the distinction between “contraception” and “abortifacients” theoretically makes some sense, but then there are those rather large differences in how they are defined by, say, the Catholic hierarchy and most everyone else. I haven’t seen any exact polling on it, but I am reasonably sure that the vast majority of Americans, non-Catholics and Catholics alike, do not consider IUDs or estrogen pills (whether the “regular” kind or Plan B) abortifacients (a term, come to think of it, almost no one other than anti-choice activists uses) rather than contraceptives. Totally aside from the mandate issue, moreover, you’d think anti-choice folks would be wary of placing emphasis on their belief that a zygote is a “person,” after all their efforts to convince us they are mainly concerned with stopping late-term abortions.

As for the strategy of reframing the mandate issue as one of government aggression against the passive ranks of believers, this, too, strikes me as an effort to put raging genies back into a hundred bottles. Had GOP pols and the bishops alike not been so shrill in their immediate reaction to the mandate, and so gleeful when it looked like they had Obama on the run, maybe that could work, but now, like it or not, it really is all running together: Rush-and-Fluke, Santorum-the-spiritual-warrior opposing contraception, bishops and Christian Right leaders openly plotting “campaigns” to increase their sway over public policy, etc., etc. It’s too late for ravening conservative wolves to don sheep’s clothing on these issues. And when it comes to the Catholic clergy, there is an unavoidable contradiction between the strategic need to pose as victims and the tactical need to beat rebellious “liberals” back into line. I also suspect they are rightly worried about the damage they have already done to their fragile credibility on sex-and-gender matters with their own flocks by going after Obama so vocally on this issue.

So there remains the argument that conservatives should just make this all about ObamaCare, and maybe that will help their cause, though it’s obviously a rather circular argument. At this point, if I were a Republican, I’d be more worried that the issue, by making insurance coverage mandates concrete rather than abstract, might make ObamaCare more popular, helping people understand that (as conservatives used to routinely argue) you can’t get all the highly popular benefits of health care reform without coverage mandates.

Since I doubt many Republicans are going to take Ponnuru’s advice in any event—some will continue to flail around crazily while others change the subject or head for the hills—it’s probably all academic. But it’s interesting to see the contortions one must go through to make this issue a winner for the GOP after everything that’s already gone down.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Boatboy_srq on March 15, 2012 4:17 PM:


    "Socialist Jews" were a problem somewhere else, too, at one time, weren't they? If only I could remember WHERE...

  • Wapiti on March 15, 2012 4:23 PM:

    I also think it's hard to argue the "Obamacare" is over-reaching big government while Republican lawmakers are passing laws requiring women be raped with beer bottles or ultrasound wands or whatever. They certainly seemed much more interested in the coercive nature of the procedure than any medical benefit.

  • JM917 on March 15, 2012 4:37 PM:

    Today's New York Times is reporting that the Roman Catholic bishops put heavy pressure on Comen to break with Planned Parenthood, and that this pressure began when Archbishop (now Cardinal) Dolan took the lead among the US prelates.

    This is simply more evidence of the Republicans' alliance with the Catholic bishops (prodded, in turn, by the Vatican) against women's reproductive health.

  • mikeh on March 15, 2012 4:42 PM:

    Does anyone know the answer to this question? I've read that coverage for contraceptives actually reduces health care/insurance costs because it reduces the number of unwanted pregnancies. If this is the case is there an up-charge for adding contraceptive coverage? Or is it simply a choice made by the insured as to whether they want it or not?

  • Kathryn on March 15, 2012 4:47 PM:

    Ramesh Ponnuru may be a "cool customer" but the right wing extremist base is not, they are haters through and through, they can't help themselves. A friend of mine is married to an extreme conservative Catholic who listens to FOX radio; thankfully, she doesn't own a gun, and recently heard a male caller make a comment that women should be concerned about gas prices as they have to keep running to the store for contraceptives. I suppose this counts as humor in that world. The mean spirited dialogue of so called religious folks never ceases to amaze. I see no end in sight, it's like breathing to them.

  • jjm on March 15, 2012 4:47 PM:

    It's less a religious alliance between the GOP and the Catholics than it is their common desire to have absolute say so over YOUR behavior.

  • Peter C on March 15, 2012 4:47 PM:

    Ramesh wants this to be about Obamacare, but we've got to keep it about women's rights. The Republican record on women's issues is abysmal. I think Obama is ready for this; he already highlights the Lilly Ledbetter Act as the first law he signed.

  • Barbara on March 15, 2012 4:56 PM:

    Ed said:

    "I also suspect they are rightly worried about the damage they have already done to their fragile credibility on sex-and-gender matters with their own flocks by going after Obama so vocally on this issue."

    Barbara says: You are obviously not Catholic.

    Seriously. Catholic bishops are all selected for a little known genetic trait that makes women invisible and silent in their midst.

    And as for mandates -- it does take a bit chutzpah (or is that too Socialist Jew of an expression?) to claim that forcing someone to buy something destroys their liberty but that forcing someone to lie back and be penetrated "for their own good" is just part of legislating for the general welfare.

    It's not funny anymore. I have daughters.

  • Ron Byers on March 15, 2012 5:13 PM:


    I have a daughter and 3 granddaughters. I don't want them to have to endure in the nightmare world the big government Republicans are trying to create.

  • Quaker in a Basement on March 15, 2012 5:19 PM:

    Maybe I missed it, but I haven't noticed any Republican politicians running to Limbaugh's defense. Bloggers? Sure. Fox News yakkers? You bet.

    Actual elected officials? Crickets. Could it be they're hoping to finally shake loose from Rush's grip?

  • Ron Byers on March 15, 2012 5:37 PM:

    I think the horse is already out of the barn on this issue. It is way too late to reframe the "war on women" now underway by Republicans from Darrel Issa, to the various Catholic Bishops, to any number of "vaginal probe" governors like Rick Perry and on to Rush Limbaugh.

    The best Republicans can do between now and November is change the subject to anything else.

  • Mike S on March 15, 2012 5:47 PM:

    Misogyny, slut shaming and panty sniffing just "accidentally" slip into a conversation allegedly about religious freedom the same way a heroin needle "accidentally" slips into a junkie's arm.

  • Mimikatz on March 15, 2012 5:50 PM:

    Ther seems to be some serious confusion about tne meaning of "freedom". Perhaps it is time for bumper stickers and T-shirts that say "how is it small government to tell women whether or not they can use birth control?"

    The fundamental problem here is that way too many people just don't feel secure unless everyome else believes as they do. And the Bishops are under orders from Rome to bring their flocks into line with medieval Church teachings, and Fundamentalist Protestants want every one to agree with their narrow view of Christianity. So insecure are they that the mere existence of the rest of us, where we be mainline Matthew Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Seculars, Muslims or whatever, has sent them into an existential crisis. They seem to be aware that seculars are the fastest growing segment, especially among the young, and the fear of losing even more prestige and position has sent many if them positively around the bend. All of this might be humorous except that it is not a game for us any more than it is a game foe them. Real lives are at stake: women who can't get reproductive health coverage or have their health care options limited to what passes muster with right-wing Bishops, more unwanted children born into a society that already has the highest poverty rate and least social mobility of any developed society.

    The Bishops have greatly overplayed their hand, to the point where their tax exemption ought to be at issue. The only way to make a change is for women to resolve to vote and get all their female friends and family, and sympathetic male friends and relatives, to vote also for candidates tha resolve to protect women's health. There has to be a price paid at the ballot box, and maybe at the collection box as well.

  • bluespapa on March 15, 2012 7:01 PM:

    I wonder how many Americans see a priest in a collar trying to affect political outcomes as fighting for First Amendment freedom of religion, or religious leaders trying to undermine the the separation of church and state.

  • Varecia on March 15, 2012 8:19 PM:

    "...By November, nobody is going to remember who Sandra Fluke is..."

    They may not remember her name, but they are certainly NOT going to forget her and the issue! They aren't going to forget that this is about reproductive health care FREEDOM. The freedom for women to fully participate in the workforce, the freedom from the expenses of multiple pregnancies and deliveries, the freedom from increased child care expenses that come with more kids, and the freedom to have 2 wage earners in the family instead of the household's circumstances being reduced to one wage earner.

  • Danny on March 15, 2012 10:50 PM:

    Solid stuff, Ed! This is what happens: they know they somehow got on the wrong side of public opinion, now scrambling to wield their battle tested proficiency in framing the issue. Only, the yield is ever dwindling. And ultimately they'll only end up discrediting the 'freedoms' and 'mandates' narratives.