Who’s Got the Wedge Issue Now?

My how the worm does turn.

Last month Republicans were beside themselves with joy at the perception that they had found a sure-fire “wedge issue” in the administration’s contraception coverage mandate, which was under siege by the Catholic bishops and was drawing criticism from some Democratic Catholics as well.

Some of them are still looking for evidence in the polls that this remains the case (much like the proverbial child looking for the pony in a room full of manure), but for the most part, GOPers would just as soon not talk about “women’s issues” at the moment, thank you very much. But now they’ve got a new problem, and it’s on Capitol Hill, notes the New York Times’ Jonathan Weisman:

With emotions still raw from the fight over President Obama’s contraception mandate, Senate Democrats are beginning a push to renew the Violence Against Women Act, the once broadly bipartisan 1994 legislation that now faces fierce opposition from conservatives….

Republicans are bracing for a battle where substantive arguments could be swamped by political optics and the intensity of the clash over women’s issues. At a closed-door Senate Republican lunch on Tuesday, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska sternly warned her colleagues that the party was at risk of being successfully painted as antiwoman — with potentially grievous political consequences in the fall, several Republican senators said Wednesday.

Some conservatives are feeling trapped.

“I favor the Violence Against Women Act and have supported it at various points over the years, but there are matters put on that bill that almost seem to invite opposition,” said Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, who opposed the latest version last month in the Judiciary Committee.

Yeah, yeah, we know, you care about domestic violence, but–there’s always that “but,” isn’t there?

More to the point, people like Sessions have to pay attention to their “base,” and the “base” is probably best represented by cultural conservative warhorse Phyllis Schlafly, who, notes Weisman, is thundering against extension of the Violence Against Women Act because it promotes “divorce, breakup of marriage and hatred of men.” Sessions is right that the version of the extension being offered by Senate Democrats includes things conservatives consider “poison pills,” but only because they involve giving undocumented workers ((guess they should just self-deport!) and people in same-sex relationships (who presumably deserve what they get) protection against domestic violence, which predictably enrages anti-feminists and homophobes alike.

So in figuring out a way to oppose this legislation without making themselves look even worse than they do know, Republicans are indeed “trapped.” But it’s a trap of their own making.

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.