After a series of public embarrassments, and faced with polling data that suggests the GOP agenda is driving women toward the Democratic Party, Republicans may be tacitly acknowledging that kowtowing to their conservative base in an election year has some ugly ramifications.
But that doesn’t mean they’re chastened. They’re just hoping everyone forgets.
Congressional Republicans abandoned their push to roll back the Obama administration’s contraception guarantee for female employees weeks ago. But now they’re hoping that they can wipe the crux of what Democrats have termed the GOP “war on women” off the books entirely.
The white flag went up last month, after the Senate tabled the Blunt amendment — which would have allowed employers to deny coverage to workers based on religious beliefs — and outrage peaked over Rush Limbaugh’s treatment of Sandra Fluke, a law student who spoke out against the amendment. That’s when Senate GOP leadership largely took the issue off the table. The Republican-dominated House also quietly pushed the bill off its radar — but only after drawing attention to their partner legislation.
Now, Republicans are hoping to hide the flag somewhere safe, where voters can’t see it.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called the “war on women” a “fiction” that’s only as real as a GOP “war on caterpillars.”
“Talk about a manufactured issue,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told Louisville, Ky., radio station WHAS on Monday. “There is no issue.”
Perhaps most revealing was the evidence McConnell cited to make his point. “Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison,” he said, “and Kelly Ayotte from New Hampshire, and Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe from Maine, I think, would be the first to say — and Lisa Murkowski from Alaska — ‘We don’t see any evidence of this.’”
In fact, two of those female senators have criticized their party’s positions on reproductive rights.
Snowe, who voted against the Blunt amendment, recently described the contraception push as “a retro-debate that took place in the 1950s,” and said it’s “surprising in the 21st century we would be revisiting this issue.”
Murkowski was less restrained, describing the issue as an “attack on women.” On an Alaska radio show, she said, “If you don’t feel this is an attack, you need to go home and talk to your wife and your daughters.” Murkowski voted in favor of the Blunt amendment, but said she regretted doing so soon afterward.
Democrats have seized on the contraception push, describing it as only the latest in a series of Republican policies — on abortion and Planned Parenthood — that are indicative of a “war on women.” Despite some internal dissent, the messaging has paid dividends in the polls, with the party enjoying significant gains among women, and female voters flocking to President Obama over presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney in key swing states.
The GOP’s initial strategy was to paint the contraception battle as an effort to protect religious liberty in the face of an intrusive mandate by the Obama administration. Now that it has backfired, its new strategy to repair the damage ahead of the November elections is to hope it disappears from public consciousness.
“[T]here’s no question that over the past several weeks, that a discussion about religious liberty was distorted into a discussion about contraceptives. And there was the perception that somehow Republicans are opposed to contraceptives,” Romney told Newsmax last week. “I think it was a most unfortunate twist by our Democrat friends. I think this will pass as an issue as people understand our real position.”
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.