GOP's Hobby Lobby debacle: Why a win for conservatives isn't one for Republicans

SCOTUS' contraception ruling is a setback for access to women's healthcare. Here's why it could hurt GOP candidates

Published June 30, 2014 6:26PM (EDT)

Rand Paul, John Boehner, Ted Cruz                                                                        (AP/Ed Reinke/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Rand Paul, John Boehner, Ted Cruz (AP/Ed Reinke/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Because the world is an awful place, the Supreme Court's decision regarding contraception coverage mandated by the Affordable Care Act lands on the deadline day of second-quarter political fundraising. This is terrible news for anyone who aims to keep their email inboxes and Twitter timelines neat and tidy and rid of shameless solicitations.

On the other hand, it offers a great opportunity to see how each political party will try to spin the decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., in which a conservative SCOTUS majority ruled that "closely held" corporations can refuse to offer health insurance plans covering certain forms of contraception under religious freedom grounds. And don't expect the responses to be symmetrical: It's in Democrats' political interests to play this up as a so-called social issue on culture war grounds. Republicans, meanwhile, will try to shy away from the "social" factor and argue that the ruling is another data point against President Obama's unconstitutional executive tyranny.

Consider this somewhat (very) gimmicky tweet from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's team ...

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... and compare it with this response from the speaker of the House, John Boehner, who is suing the president for utilizing the power of the executive branch (emphasis ours):

Today’s decision is a victory for religious freedom and another defeat for an administration that has repeatedly crossed constitutional lines in pursuit of its Big Government objectives. The mandate overturned today would have required for-profit companies to choose between violating their constitutionally-protected faith or paying crippling fines, which would have forced them to lay off employees or close their doors.

“The plaintiffs in the HHS Mandate cases before the Court based their claims on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which passed Congress nearly unanimously in 1993.  RFRA is a critical check on federal power and enjoys support across the ideological spectrum.

“The president’s health care law remains an unworkable mess and a drag on our economy.  We must repeal it and enact better solutions that start with lowering Americans' health care costs.”

There's a big difference in approach to these responses, most clearly summed up by one word: "women." Reid's response mentions "women," which makes sense, because today's ruling limits women's access to certain contraceptives. Boehner's response does not mention "women," one of humanity's major genders. This is just about the Constitution 'n' Big Government 'n' stuff.

The irony of today's ruling is that while it's a terrible ruling, it doesn't help the Republican Party as its candidates pivot from primaries to general elections. Ever since the GOP took over the House of Representatives and various statehouses in the 2010 elections, and proceeded to act on its "jobs agenda" by going all-out to limit access to women's heathcare, the party has been pummeled in a key demographic: unmarried women. In 2012, Barack Obama won approximately two-thirds of votes by unmarried women, according to exit polls. In 2013's Virginia gubernatorial election, Republicans nominated a staunch conservative culture warrior like Ken Cuccinelli, who did so poorly among unmarried women that he managed to lose to sleazeball fundraiser Terry McAuliffe.

YES, YES, unmarried women care about lots of things beyond birth control! But the battle over access to women's healthcare, with Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a "slut" being its avatar, has proven to have remarkable political resonance in turning out the vote against "social conservatives." That's why Harry Reid is calling the ruling what it is -- the Supreme Court placing a limit on "women’s access to health care" -- while John Boehner pops off about "an administration that has repeatedly crossed constitutional lines in pursuit of its Big Government objectives."

As fall rolls around, we should expect to hear a lot from Democrats about this ruling and little from Republicans about it -- cynical as that may be, considering Democratic policies lost and Republican policies won. Not that it's clear how Senate Democrats could respond to today's ruling. Sadly, Harry Reid and co. can't do much about Sam Alito having terrible opinions.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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