Last month in this space I discussed the New York Times editorial page’s enthusiastic support for the Obama administration’s birth-control insurance mandate. Since I filed that column, liberal politicians, reporters, and commentators have turned the issue into one of the most vivid examples of the Taranto Principle since John Kerry’s campaign for president.
The Taranto Principle holds that the liberal media often ill serve liberal politicians by creating a feedback loop in which both sides reinforce each other’s prejudices while public opinion goes its own way. In retrospect, the contraceptive mandate was perfectly suited to trigger the principle. Birth control is widely practiced and almost universally accepted, so Democrats figured as long as they could obscure the issue of religious liberty, the public would take their side.
They got encouragement from Rick Santorum, who by then had emerged as Mitt Romney’s chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination, and who was not shy about expressing his personal agreement with the Catholic Church’s position that birth control is immoral and has had deleterious social consequences. Even some conservative commentators, like Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post, were horrified. “The impression that Santorum finds the prevalent practice of birth control ‘harmful to women’ is, frankly, mind-numbing,” she wrote on February 15. Never mind that Santorum said he does not think birth control should be forbidden by law, or that such a law would be unconstitutional anyway under longstanding Supreme Court precedent.
On February 16, Democrats in Congress staged a publicity stunt. That day the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing on the Obamacare contraception mandate and its implications for religious liberty. Democrats originally chose Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State to testify for the anti-religious-liberty side. Then they sandbagged the Republicans. They asked, too late, for Sandra Fluke, a 30-year-old student at Georgetown Law School, to be subbed in for Lynn, and they told Lynn not to bother showing up. When the hearing took place, Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York demanded: “Where are the women?” Although it was the Dems who chose Lynn over Fluke, and the second panel of witnesses included two female members, liberal media dutifully propagated the “Republican sexism” charge. A week later, House Democrats held a mock hearing where Fluke testified.
On February 17, Bloomberg columnist Jonathan Alter declared that social liberalism had triumphed:
Contraception is now the elephant in the bedroom—the issue that no one in the Republican establishment wants to talk about because they know it’s a disaster for them.…The independent women who will help determine the election want the government—and their bosses—out of their private lives. The culture wars are over, and the Republicans lost.
There were some problems with this narrative. Like Cindy Sheehan, Fluke was a left-wing activist cast in the role of everywoman (or as much of an “everywoman” as a student at an elite law school can be). “Fluke has a long history of feminist advocacy,” reported Caroline May of the Daily Caller:
While [an undergraduate] at Cornell, Fluke’s organized activities centered on the far-left feminist and gender equity movements. Fluke participated in rallies supporting abortion, protests against war in Iraq and efforts to recruit other womens’ [sic] rights activists to campus.
Fluke even got a bachelor’s degree in something called “Feminist, Gender, & Sexuality Studies.”
In her testimony, Fluke asserted that “without insurance coverage, contraception…can cost a woman more than $3,000 during law school.” The Weekly Standard’s John McCormack called the local Target store and found that its price for a month’s supply of generic birth-control pills was $9, without insurance, a total of $324 for three years.
Thus this dishonest distraction was already well under way by Wednesday, February 29, when Rush Limbaugh famously joked: “What does it say about…Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception.”
That Saturday, Limbaugh acknowledged his mistake: “My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.” No doubt it was satisfying to the left to have brought Limbaugh to heel, something that isn’t easy to do. And it’s true that Limbaugh’s ill-chosen words magnified the Fluke distraction.
But whereas distractions are evanescent, the religious-liberty issue hadn’t gone away. On March 1, the day after Fluke testified, the Democrat-controlled Senate passed up an opportunity to blunt the issue, rejecting by a 51-48 procedural vote, with only four senators crossing party lines, an amendment that would have allowed conscience exemptions to the Obamacare contraception mandate. At least four vulnerable Democratic senators seeking re-election—Bill Nelson of Florida, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana, and Sherrod Brown of Ohio—had gone on record against religious liberty.
Reporters demanded that Romney and Santorum vigorously denounce Limbaugh; they demurred. In a March 2 Forbes.com column, the usually centrist Democratic pollster Doug Schoen jumped on the socially liberal bandwagon:
In light of yesterday’s defeat in the Senate of the “Respect for Rights of Conscience Act,” aka the Blunt Amendment it is clear that the GOP has simply pushed the contraception fight too far.…And as we move ahead toward November, it is almost certain that the issue of access to contraception will only further help the Democrats with moderate and independent women in swing states.
The public turned out to have a mind of its own. On March 13, a New York Times/CBS News poll found that Obama’s approval rating had dropped to 41 percent from 50 percent a month earlier. The Times story on the poll explained that the change reflected “volatility” and stressed that “polls capture only a particular moment in time.” About the media frenzy of the preceding month, the story said only this:
In recent weeks, there has been much debate over the government’s role in guaranteeing insurance coverage for contraception, including for those who work for religious organizations. The poll found that women were split as to whether health insurance plans should cover the costs of birth control and whether employers with religious objections should be able to opt out.
Actually, the poll found that by 51 percent to 40 percent, respondents believed employers should “be allowed to opt out of covering [birth control] based on religious or moral objections.” The gap grew when the question referred specifically to religiously affiliated institutions, with 57 percent favoring an opt-out and only 36 percent opposing it.
That is, a majority agreed with the Blunt Amendment, while barely a third supported the Obama position, which the media had trumpeted as a sure winner—and which, at this writing, it looks impossible for the president to reverse without infuriating his political base.
If Obama is re-elected, it will be in spite of, not because of, his promise of an abortifacient in every pot. If not, it will be in part because he believed the liberal media’s false assurances that the public was on his side.