The Supreme Court’s ruling today in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which said that employers with religious objections cannot be impelled to pay for contraceptive coverage for its employees, has reignited one of the more lopsided political fights of the current era: the War on Contraception. Given the gusto with which Republicans and conservatives dive into political fights surrounding contraception, the casual observer could be forgiven for assuming that the issue has been a winner for them in the past. The precise opposite is true. It’s toxic for the GOP.
But they keep going back, again and again, owing to the conservative base’s ideological rigidity and the party’s overriding animosity toward the Affordable Care Act.
The top officials and organs of the Republican Party all put out statements this morning celebrating the Hobby Lobby ruling and taking shots at the Obama administration. The Republican National Committee cast the decision as a victory for “religious freedom” over government intrusion. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “The Obama administration cannot trample on the religious freedoms that Americans hold dear.” And Speaker John Boehner, who is currently planning to sue the administration for government overreach, said the decision is “another defeat for an administration that has repeatedly crossed constitutional lines in pursuit of its Big Government objectives.”
The real driving force behind these fights is the conservative sexual morality that casts contraception as an enabler of sinful licentiousness. Professional Republicans try to disguise this by reframing the fight as one of religious liberty or government tyranny, but activists and pundits who don’t have to care what other people think of them are far less guarded and happily give away the game.
Salon’s Jim Newell points out that over the last four years, ever since the Tea Party ascendance, the Republican Party’s performance with unmarried women has been increasingly terrible. It’s a problem that Republicans themselves are sensitive to – RNC chair Reince Priebus said in March that “we basically have a single-women problem under 35-ish.” Part of the reason they have this problem is that they keep starting fights over contraception, and they keep losing.
Back in January 2012, Republicans and conservatives started an election-year fight over Obamacare’s contraception mandate, calling it a threat to religious liberty and government tyranny – the same sorts of statements we’re hearing today. The problem they faced then is the same problem they have now: the public, by and large, approves of access to contraception and tends to view it more as a women’s health issue than a question of religious liberty. This left them wide open to Democratic “War on Women” attacks, and Republicans, wary of alienating voters ahead of the election, quietly backed off.
There’s not a whole lot to lead one to believe the issue will be any better for Republicans this time around. Young, unmarried women still generally hate the GOP, and the reemergence of the contraception fight could get them politically reengaged ahead of the midterms. And there’s always a tone-deaf Republican waiting in the wings to say something boneheaded and turn himself into a mascot of Republican antagonism toward women (think Mike Huckabee and “Uncle Sugar”).
The big difference is that now the Republicans have a Supreme Court opinion to wave around in defense of their anachronistic take on the politics of contraception, though I suspect Sam Alito’s take on reproductive health won’t be any more palatable than Rick Santorum’s.