The Republican Upside of the Birth Control Fight
by David Atkins
Greg Sargent crystallizes what many of us understand implicitly about the Republican strategy, but might not be able to verbalize so clearly:
Public polls seem to suggest that the birth control fight has the potential to be terrible politics for Republicans — it could be used as wedge issue against the GOP and could help Obama and Dems win women in the numbers they need this fall.
So are Republican strategists who are in the business of winning elections — as opposed to conservative and evangelical groups who see this as a way to prime their support base — worried about this?
I just got off the phone with Whit Aryes, the well-known GOP strategist, and he laid out the counterargument.
He conceded the battle could go either way, but argued Republicans can win if they frame it “in the context of an overweening government mandate that is part of Obamacare and forces religious institutions to do things they fundamentally disagree with.” He argued Republicans must not allow the argument to “devolve into, `are you for or against contraception...’”
Republicans hope this fight will allow them to advance a key subtext: Obama wants to expand the reach of government into matters of faith and is hostile to religious values.
Two lessons here:
1) Never underestimate the degree to which othering is central to everything Republicans do politically. Even issues that seem to be straight-up Bible-thumping misogyny are just as much about creating a contrast between "us" and "them", where "them" is dark-skinned egg-headed atheists, and "us" is God-fearing, down home church-going white people. Bizarre as it may seem, most Republican strategists pushing the contraception argument don't even care about gender, religion or contraception per se; they just want an excuse to subtly divide "good" Americans from "bad" ones. Women's bodies are just collateral damage.
2) Never underestimate the importance and value of large-scale argument framing. Many progressives tend to dismiss rhetoric and framing as just so much gobbledygook that doesn't matter if they just bring enough angry people power, or explain policy issues more clearly. People on the left are constantly desperate to win the next media cycle or legislative battle.
Republicans understand the value of sacrificing a chess piece up front in the interest of maintaining a strategy and winning a long-term war, in a way that Democrats often do not. For Republicans, this contraception battle isn't just about pushing the Overton Window on women's health. It's about being willing to potentially lose a media cycle and even a demographic/electoral issue (being perceived as against contraception and thus losing women voters) in exchange for advancing ground on a more subtle ideological war about worldviews (liberals are overreaching, elitist dictatorial busybodies who hate religion and thus hate America.)
They'll worry about the short-term damage later so long as they can cast their opponents negatively over the long term. Denying more women basic contraception is either a good thing from the fundamentalist perspective, or an unfortunate price of waging the larger war from a more cosmopolitan conservative orientation. And wealthier women conservatives could care less, of course: they'll always be able to afford contraception regardless, just as they can surreptitiously send their daughters off to parts unknown for an "intentional miscarriage" or two.
After all, contraception is a privilege that should only be available for the deserving, and the longer war serves the interests of the "producers" quite admirably.