I was never among those who believed that the White House had deliberately started a fight over birth control with its new rule requiring health insurance to cover contraception, as a way to provoke an inevitable conservative overreach. To me, their decision had all the markings of this administration at its technocratic best (or worst, depending on how you view the coverage mandate.) But I was among the first to doubt that that the issue would damage the Democrats as many were predicting, pointing out the extremity of the counter-reaction, starting with the Catholic Church’s insistence that the mandate be lifted not only for Catholic institutions but for any employer who claims a personal conscientious objection to covering contraception—even the owner of a Taco Bell franchise, in one top church official’s felicitous example.
And now, behold what the overreach has wrought. First, it helped lead to the likely loss of a GOP Senate seat. Olympia Snowe told the New York Times that a final straw leading to her decision to retire was the Blunt-Rubio amendment—which would do exactly what the Church demands, prohibiting pretty much any health coverage mandates for any employer who registered an objection on conscience grounds. Snowe was under huge pressure to support it, partly to give New England-moderate cover to Scott Brown, who has come out for the amendment and is already under withering attack for that from Elizabeth Warren.
Then there is Mitt Romney, who has been so discombobulated by the rise of the contraception issue that you almost want to sit him down and have a forthright birds and the bees talk with the man to get him over his 1950s-style anxiety on the matter. When George Stephonapoulous raised the contraception issue at a debate in New Hampshire, Romney brushed him off, declaring that contraception is “working just fine.” Well, his fellow Republicans apparently disagree, and it’s causing Romney no end of trouble. When he was asked about the Blunt-Rubio amendment by an Ohio television reporter yesterday, he gave a bizarre answer that set off a new round of alarms on the right: “I’m not for the bill. But, look, the idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a woman, husband and wife, I’m not going there.” Wha?? The amendment has nothing to do with the contraception decisions of a man and a woman. It has to do with women's access to contraception and the government’s role in guaranteeing it. Romney seemed to be genuinely clueless about the legislation. After a brief furor, he said he had misunderstood the question and that he was “of course” for the amendment—an amendment that, again, would allow employers to refuse coverage for all sorts of things in their employees’ plans, not just contraception.
And all for what? The Senate just now voted to table the amendment, in a 51-48 vote. And yet we’ll be hearing a lot more about this in the months ahead, and something tells me that Scott Brown and Mitt Romney—two Massachusetts moderates who have in past relied on the support of suburban women—are going to wish that Republicans had not made this the point of attack against Obamacare. At the very least, Romney will have to learn how to talk about birth control without blushing.