After reading a transcript of the Republican debate last night, I think the media should ask a very simple question:

“Leaving aside questions of government policy and abortion, do you personally think that the invention of effective birth control technologies—condoms, the pill, diaphrams—has been a good thing for society?” (I’ve phrased that to leave out all the methods that anybody, however oddly, believes to be abortifacients.)

Mark Kleiman has already suggested that Mitt Romney should be asked a similar question, but it’s now clear that all the Republican candidates, even Ron Paul, now feel a need to waffle on whether the existence of contraception itself is good or bad. This is simply unbelievable—and, for the party, unsustainable.

I don’t normally think that single questions can determine elections, and I’m as ready as the next person to attribute most of what happens in elections to economic factors. But sometimes position-taking matters. And even lack of position-taking can matter if it suggests a position that’s extreme enough.

Eventually, either the press or the Democrats are going to make sure that the question gets asked in a forum where the follow-up question—”simple question, sir: government policy aside, has it been a good thing?”—can be pursued. And no would-be Republican nominee will have the guts (or, in Santorum’s case, the eccentric conscience) to say yes. At that point, Obama, not to mention Steve Israel, can start running, over and over, a thirty-second spot of the eventual Republican nominee’s refusal to say yes.

Devastating. And the Republicans will deserve the devastation.

Update: I’m not suggesting that candidates be penalized for matters of personal faith if they’re deliberately willing to bracket their faith for public policy purposes. For instance, Catholic politicians whose religion leads them to oppose the death penalty—as allegedly orthodox Catholic Rick Santorum, by the way, rather hypocritically doesn’t—sometimes (like Jerry Brown) say they will impartially enforce existing laws that provide for the death penalty’s existence. In such cases, their religious beliefs are rightly considered irrelevant. But since the Republican candidates are explicitly and loudly unwilling to acknowledge that kind of separation, we are entitled to regard their faith as a direct indication of their policy intent: because they do.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl is a Visiting Professor in the Program on Ethics, Politics, and Economics and in Political Science at Yale University.