The “Messaging Amendment”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) voted last week for the unsuccessful Blunt Amendment that would have repealed any contraception coverage mandate for any employer who claimed to object to it on religious or moral grounds. Now she says she regrets that vote, because, it appears, it sent the wrong “message,”as she told Anchorage Daily News columnist Julie O’Malley:

She’d meant to make a statement about religious freedom, she said, but voters read it as a vote against contraception coverage for women….

She called the Blunt Amendment a “messaging amendment” that “both sides know is not going to pass.”

Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid saw the public debate shifting away from religious freedom, which would have been a winning issue for Republicans, she said. Reid recognized contraceptive rights as a winning issue for Democrats and pushed for a vote.

“The wind had shifted, and Republicans didn’t have enough sense to get off of it,” she said.

So she was voting for a “message,” not an actual amendment that would have actual consequences for actual women.

This reasoning is also how Republicans got themselves into the situation which eventually led to Rush Limbaugh bellowing insults at a Georgetown law student for a couple of days until even he figured out–or had it figured out for him by his sponsors–he had gone too far. Most of us would have never heard of Sandra Fluke had not U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) decided his hearing on the contraception coverage mandate was “about religious freedom,” not, you know, contraception. Fluke, not being a conservative religious leader, had no standing in Issa’s mind to address the “message” he was trying to send.

Look, I understand the concept of political messaging quite well; I have, in fact, conducted hundreds of “message training” events over the years. But one of the fundamentals of message training is that you can send inadvertant as well as deliberate messages, and you do not get to choose which ones are heard by listeners, even if you are a powerful House committee chairman, or a powerful bishop, or a powerful U.S. Senator. Announcing that this hearing, or that vote, or that radio tirade, is “about” one subject and not another does not magically absolve one from the consequences of how such actions appear to others, or in the case of a proposed law, how it actually affects others.

Sure, the contraception coverage mandate might well be “about” religious freedom to some people (though the bishops, having already decided well before the mandate was announced, that they were going to wage an aggressive anti-Obama campaign claiming various threats to “religious freedom,” may well have been acting opportunistically). To Rick Santorum, it might be “about” Satan’s spiritual war for conquest of America, in conjunction with his infernal minions in academia and mainline Protestantism. To many feminists, the whole dispute is “about” men who cannot tolerate uppity women deciding to control their reproductive systems instead of following God or Nature’s plan for them to serve as submissive breeders.

The point is, buried in all these “messages” people want to send (or be perceived as sending) or hear, is something called objective reality. The role of “debate” over a legislative or administrative proposal isn’t just to test which “messages” send the dial soaring, but to sort out what the proposal would actually do. And while it is at best debatable that the contraception coverage mandate would have any real impact on religious freedom, it sure as hell would affect access to contraceptive services, at least for some people.

So I have zero sympathy for Sen. Murkowski. If all she wants to do is to send messages, she can make speeches all day long. And like the rest of us, she should develop the habit of distinguishing laws from their intentions, their implications, and their political impact. All of these things matter, but pretending they are all the same thing reduces lawmaking to noise and debate to shouting.

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.