Jeb’s slimy new Hillary attack: The "anti-religion" smear the media is letting him get away with

Bush shares a smear concocted in the boiler rooms of right-wing Clinton hate -- and no one has called him on it

By Joan Walsh

Published June 16, 2015 5:31PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Rebecca Cook/AP/Jason DeCrow/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/Rebecca Cook/AP/Jason DeCrow/Photo montage by Salon)

When Jeb Bush claimed Hillary Clinton said that if religious Americans oppose progressive policies, their religious beliefs "have to be changed," in his campaign kickoff speech Monday, I assumed he was misrepresenting his Democratic rival, and that the media would point it out. But he got in the hilarious juvenile “That’s what she said!” joke, and that’s all reporters talked about.

In fact Bush pulled that small quote from Clinton’s inspiring “Women in the World” speech in April – and in doing so, shamelessly distorted its meaning. And he got his slur from the far right: Glenn Beck’s The Blaze and Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller tried to make the case that Clinton’s words applied to domestic disputes over abortion and contraception at the time – but nobody fell for it, because it was such a silly claim. So far, Bush has gotten away with it. But he shouldn’t.

Clinton was talking about countries where girls don't go to high school, where domestic violence is legal, where high maternal mortality rates are tolerated. And she did say: “Deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs, and structural biases have to be changed.”

Look at those four words in the context of her speech. Here’s what Clinton said:

Yes, we've nearly closed the global gender gap in primary school, but secondary school remains out of reach for so many girls around the world.

Yes, we've increased the number of countries prohibiting domestic violence, but still more than half the nations in the world have no such laws on the books, and an estimated one in three women still experience violence.

Yes, we've cut the maternal mortality rate in half, but far too many women are still denied critical access to reproductive health care and safe childbirth.

All the laws we've passed don't count for much if they're not enforced.  Rights have to exist in practice, not just on paper.  Laws have to be backed up with resources and political will.  And deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs, and structural biases have to be changed.

As I have said and as I believe, the advancement of the full participation of women and girls at every aspect of their societies is the great unfinished business of the 21st century, and not just for women but for everyone — and not just in far away countries but right here in the United States.

So does Jeb Bush object to any or all of that? Is he against closing the gender gap in education in the developing world? (In the U.S., women outpace men in educational attainment, so Clinton clearly wasn’t talking about this country.) Is he for domestic violence (the same is true; we have those laws here)? Does he oppose efforts to cut the maternal mortality rate? What, exactly, is objectionable in what Clinton said?

Bush, of course, put Clinton’s words in an entirely different context: the domestic battle over the “conscience clause” in the Affordable Care Act, and the larger clash over so-called “religious freedom” laws around marriage equality. And here’s what he said:

These have been rough years for religious charities and their right of conscience. And the leading Democratic candidate recently hinted of more trouble to come.

Secretary Clinton insists that when the progressive agenda encounters religious beliefs to the contrary, those beliefs, quote, “have to be changed.” That’s what she said, and I guess we should at least thank her for the warning.

"That's what she said." Nyuk-nyuk.

Bush went on to hit the high point of his speech, his defense of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of Catholic nuns who have objected to using the conscience clause in the ACA that would let them refuse to provide contraception to employees. Now remember: there is a conscience clause that lets religious charities out of the contraception mandate. Some feminist groups weren’t happy about its addition to the law. But the Little Sisters sued the federal government claiming that even having to exercise that option – signing a paper attesting to their religious objection to the law – infringes their religious freedom, and might open the door to a third party providing contraception. (The government says it doesn’t.)

Bush ignored all that, of course, and delivered this applause line:  “It comes down to a choice between the Little Sisters and Big Brother, and I’m going with the Sisters.” It got him a huge ovation, though I thought it was dangerous for him to bring up the notion of “Big Brother,” given that his own big brother's failed presidency haunts his campaign.

But back to the point: Hillary Clinton didn’t suggest that the religious beliefs of the Little Sisters of the Poor, or anyone else, “have to be changed.” Bush knows that. And he got away with the blatant misrepresentation of her views, until now.

Just like he got away with claiming last week that the unwed mother-shaming Scarlet Letter law Florida adopted while he was governor was actually designed to increase child support collection. Since it only applied to cases where unmarried mothers were giving up children for adoption, it had absolutely nothing to do with child support. Bush either lied, or didn’t care enough to remember one of the most controversial policy debates of his tenure.

So far, though, the only mainstream criticism of Bush’s campaign holds that it’s “joyless.” I agree with that assessment, but that’s the least of it. Bush does seem like he’s playing the self-sacrificing grownup running a reluctant campaign made necessary by the juveniles in his party, and that dynasty in the other party. Watch him use his large war chest to try to joylessly destroy all of them in the weeks to come.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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