Last week’s Limbaugh fiasco was the culmination of a month of hell for the Republican party.
It started with the Obama administration’s decision that employers would now be required to provide contraception coverage for women in the health plans they provided. As part of this ruling, there was an exception given to churches, but not to charities or schools affiliated with churches. The Republican presidential candidates quickly jumped on this one, with Newt in the lead, declaring that the Obama Administration had basically “declared war on the Catholic Church.” In reality, it wasn’t as dramatic as Newt made it out to be, since there are similar laws in 28 states and 20 of those states (including Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts) do not exempt Catholic affiliated institutions.
Still, not much penetrates the Republican bubble, and to a party that still contains people who are fighting the social battles that were settled 50 years ago, this seemed like a good issue to start a partisan debate over. As one of their first actions, Darrell Issa’s House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, convened a panel to discuss the issue. The panel consisted of 6 male clergy members of varying faiths. Democrats requested to let Sandra Fluke, a law student at Georgetown, speak but were told that she would not be able to speak since the hearing was about “religious freedom” not contraception. Democrats were quick to pounce on the ridiculous scene of an all male panel discussing a contraception mandate, with Democratic Senator Patty Murray saying that “it was like stepping into a time machine and going back 50 years.”
The Obama Administration responded with what could only loosely be defined as a “compromise” measure: instead of requiring the church affiliated organizations to negotiate with providers to offer contraception, the health plans themselves would be required to extend this coverage. Surprisingly, this new measure was enough to split the Catholic community, with Sister Keehan of the Catholic Health Organization declaring that it resolved the controversy while the Bishops continued to protest. On an issue that close to 98% of Catholics disagree with the Church’s teaching, this was enough to take the pressure off of the Administration.
But Republicans decided to press their luck and they quickly coalesced around a provision offered by Senator Roy Blunt, who proposed a broadly written provision that would allow any employer to refuse to provide any health coverage for treatments that they had “a moral objection” to. As many pointed out, this amendment would effectively gut the Health Care Law, in theory allowing employers to refuse to provide coverage for any number of things including immunizations, HIV treatment, pre-natal care for unmarried mothers as long as they could claim any moral objection to the treatment.
On February 28, Mitt Romney won the Michigan primary. The very next morning he was asked his position on the Blunt Amendment and responded “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 women, husband and wife, I’m not going there.” It took him about an hour and a half to flip-flop on this one. “Of course I support the Blunt Amendment” Romney said later that day, protesting that he just misunderstood the question.
Blunt added his provision to a Highway Funding Bill and Harry Reid called his bluff, scheduling a day’s worth of debate on the measure. Amazingly, only one Republican senator voted against the Amendment, effectively putting them all (including two who are facing reelection in swing states) on record against public opinion in a debate that was increasingly defined as being about contraception.
To be fair to the Republicans, if you don’t think that the government ought to be mandating any health care, then it follows that you wouldn’t want government to force employers to provide health insurance that somehow violated their morals, but that was becoming a hard position to defend since Republicans have a long history as the party of moral scolds, the Republican Presidential “Front Runner” of the week was on record publically stating his opposition to contraception, and the Virginia Legislature was simultaneously debating whether to require what is referred to as a “trans-vaginal ultrasound” before they could get an abortion in the Commonwealth. Still, despite the public black eye, this might have been a plausible argument.
That is until Rush Limbaugh opened his big fat mouth.
Speaking on his radio show he attacked Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown student who was denied the ability to speak before Congress on the contraception issue. Limbaugh called Fluke a “prostitute” and “a slut” for arguing that women should be allowed access to contraception under their health plans and said that his proposition for her was that they could have access to those contraceptives if they posted videos of themselves having sex online. In a brilliant political move, as the outrage spread, President Obama called Fluke just as she was about to appear on Andrea Mitchell’s show on MSNBC to inquire about her wellbeing and tell her that her parents should be proud of her.
This, of course, was a blatantly political move, but it worked in a number of ways for Obama. First, it cemented the belief of most people that this debate was more about women’s rights than religious freedom. Second, it guaranteed that most prominent Republicans would be given the choice of repudiating Limbaugh (and angering the legion of dittoheads that decide Republican primaries), or put them in the ridiculous position of defending Limbaugh’s statements. Third, it put Obama on the side of every parent of girls (no matter what their gender), and fourth, it once again elevated the misogynist Rush Limbaugh as the face of the Republican party. On Meet the Press last week, Savannah Guthrie suggested that the gesture on the part of the president might have been a “a bit of an oveerreach” but Republican Mark Halperin called it like he saw it: “classic triangulation” and “a brash political move.”
Limbaugh complained last week that Democrats were doing a good job of “pretending they don’t have a sense of humor,” but I think that, if anything, Obama’s move proves that they do.
Rush just doesn’t appreciate that, this time, the joke’s on him.