Roving thoughts and provocations

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The Politics of Safe Sex

AP Photo/CSPAN
Georgetown University Law School student Sandra Fluke during her testimony to Congress, February 23, 2012

Some years ago, while I was watching the House Ways and Means Committee decide which industries would benefit from a new energy bill, James Burke, a prototypical red-faced Massachusetts pol with a decided Boston accent, strode past the press table and said, “The trouble with you people is that you think this is on the level.” This earthy wisdom remained with me and has rarely been so useful as in the recent uproar over contraceptives/Rush Limbaugh/Sandra Fluke/election-year politics.

Republican leaders, strategists, presidential candidates, and sympathetic columnists are dismayed that their party got into a big controversy over the issue of insurance coverage of contraceptives—when the economy and Obama’s presidency were supposed to be the defining issues of the 2012 election. In fact, the proposal by Senator Blunt that lost in the Senate by only three votes—which would have allowed an employer to except health care coverage for anything he or she found morally objectionable—wasn’t really about contraceptives, and definitely not about the bogus issue of “freedom of religion.” It was an attempt on the part of Republicans to blow a big hole in the new health care law, which they are determined to kill off. But cooler heads could see that while the contraceptives issue might be attractive to the religious conservatives who dominate the Republican base it could give independents still more reason to desert the Republicans in November, and would help drive women back to voting for Democrats.

Along comes Rush Limbaugh, before whom most Republican politicians quaver, to make matters worse with his vile and curiously salacious statements on his widely followed radio program: he said that if such insurance were provided he wanted Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University Law School student and leading figure making the case for such coverage for students, and her friends to post the videos of their lovemaking online “so we can all watch.”

Limbaugh picked a bad target. Fluke, who hadn’t been permitted to testify before a House committee and instead did so before an ad hoc group of Democratic House members, is lovely, direct, polished, and obviously committed, and thus a sympathetic figure.

But Limbaugh’s attack was so far out of bounds as to mask the fact that in substance he probably spoke for a great number of his listeners. He touched a nerve by raising an issue on which many of his followers would agree with him: why should taxpayers pay for insurance (with no copay at that) to make unlimited sexual activity by students worry-free? Whatever people’s attitudes are about young people engaging in what used to be called “recreational sex,” Limbaugh had cleverly made the issue not really the sex but insurance coverage to protect against its possible consequences.

If, as the Obama administration has now suggested, this coverage must be provided by insurance companies rather than religious institutions themselves, it wasn’t hard for a lot of people to figure out that this might well result in higher premiums. Moreover they soon learned that Ms. Fluke wasn’t just some hapless victim of a mean-spirited policy but had in fact been lobbying for coverage of contraceptives for a long time—as was her absolute right—and she had told reporters she deliberately decided to go to Georgetown’s law school since its health plan didn’t cover contraception, on religious grounds. (Health care coverage by universities and colleges is a relatively recent phenomenon. They aren’t required to offer it, but many require that students have health coverage and offer such coverage at a relatively low cost for students who can’t find it elsewhere.) Ms. Fluke testified that some students’ contraceptive costs ran to $3,000 for three years of law school; this sounds like a lot of money to middle-class people and others stretching to make ends meet, who understandably might wonder why students’ sex lives had to be subsidized. Though non-marital sex has ceased to shock large portions of the population, not everyone is so “liberated.”

Limbaugh blundered, but so did the Democrats. In my view it would have been wiser for them to call as a witness a married woman with an unarguable medical reason for needing contraceptives and who worked for a Catholic institution that denied it. (In fact numerous Catholic universities offer contraception coverage.) Ms. Fluke was a known person and available—and in fact her testimony included the case of a woman for whom contraceptives were medically essential, but this got lost in all the noise.

And so we had the spectacle of an overweight bully with a big bullhorn beating up on an attractive young woman—and Limbaugh was possibly a hypocritical bully. Lawrence O’Donnell noted on his MSNBC program more than once that Limbaugh is now in his fourth marriage and has never had children.

The Democrats pressed Republican leaders and candidates to take a position on Limbaugh’s remarks, putting them in the uncomfortable position of deciding to either stand up for Limbaugh in all his vulgarity or take the risk of crossing this dangerous man with a great deal of influence on the right. The candidates for the Republican nomination were less than forthright. Mitt Romney offered an unsurprisingly mushy statement: “It’s not the language I would have used.” Rick Santorum, who has said he’s against the use of contraceptives, ventured that Limbaugh’s language was “absurd” adding that Limbaugh is an entertainer (a description Limbaugh is said to not care for at all). Newt Gingrich essentially dodged the issue but attacked the press for bringing it up when there were so many other important matters to discuss.

For his part, President Obama called Ms. Fluke to express his sympathy—an act the White House quickly made public. However empathetic the President felt, the politically beneficial telephone call is an old device. Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, who needed to attract blacks skittish about his vague commitment to civil rights, made a famous call to Coretta Scott King in 1960, when her husband was in a Georgia prison. Presidents call astronauts and football coaches. A sympathetic call to Ms. Fluke made eminent political sense: it reinforced both the trap the Republican candidates were in over Limbaugh’s remarks, and also the Obama campaign’s efforts to win the strong support of women in November. Had the call been made totally out of compassion, it need not have been made public—at least by the White House (though Ms. Fluke might have mentioned it to the press).

Someone I know who is involved in the Obama reelection campaign, delighted by the President’s call, said, “The women’s vote for Democrats disappeared in 2010—after two years of an [Obama] administration that neglected to talk to them.” This person also said: “She [Fluke] comes across as someone young women will identify with and most women think could be their daughter. Those just happen to be major target groups. I think framing this issue as choice between an oversized, outrageous bully and the calm, well spoken young Ms. Fluke is playing the game very well.”

Those who wanted to strike back at Limbaugh succeeded in finding a way to do this without necessarily stirring up his followers—though it’s not clear that that was a conscious consideration—landed on what might be called the Imus Strategy. When radio shocker Don Imus made some bigoted remarks about a nearly all-black women’s basketball team in 2007, a concentrated—and successful—effort was made by outraged people to get sponsors and NBC to drop him. People outraged by Limbaugh’s remarks mounted a similar campaign—its hashtag is #boycottRush—to persuade Limbaugh’s sponsors to drop him. After a couple of them had done so by last Saturday afternoon, Limbaugh posted a not very abject apology on his website, saying he regretted his “poor choice of words,” but restating his argument against insurance coverage of contraceptives. As of the end of weekend, seven sponsors had dropped Limbaugh’s show, and his opponents had broadened the target to include Clear Channel Communications, which carries Limbaugh’s program.

In the end the noisy and often passionate argument over insurance coverage for contraception came down not to “religious freedom,” nor even to women’s health, but to a contest over whether the issue would be more efficacious for turning out the Democrats’ or the Republicans’ base in November.

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