If They Had Some Ham….

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

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.