The war over contraception rages on, but Democrats have definitely won this round. Over the past week, Democrats have turned the tables on Republicans in the heated debate over whether religious institutions should be required to cover contraception in their employer-sponsored healthcare plans. But what initially looked like yet another losing battle over Obama’s healthcare reform unexpectedly turned into a resounding win for the Democratic Party.
At the centre of this victory was Sandra Fluke, a pretty 30-year-old Georgetown University law student who was not allowed to testify at a House Oversight Committee hearing on the contraception issue.
As we have previously noted, Fluke would not have been a very strong witness had she been allowed to speak. As a Georgetown student, she could not have provided any insight into the Catholic university’s employee healthcare plans which, incidentally, cover contraception.
Issa’s rationale for rejecting Fluke was that “the hearing is not about reproductive rights and contraception.” But his exclusion of Fluke left the panel without a single female witness.
Of course, any debate about contraception includes a discussion about women’s health issues. There are women who come down on both sides of the issue, making the lack of female representation on Issa’s panel at minimum bad politics.
It is not clear whether Democrats on the Oversight Committee knew, or suspected, that Fluke’s testimony would be rejected. But there is no way they could have anticipated that Rush Limbaugh would get in on the action.
Limbaugh makes inflammatory remarks all the time. But his description of Fluke as a “slut” and a “prostitute,” and his suggestion that she post sex tapes online in exchange for birth control pills struck a chord, perhaps because it provided a subtext to the image of Issa’s all-male contraception hearing.
Limbaugh’s verbal assault against Fluke, combined with the GOP’s tepid and belated response, put Democrats on the offence. In the wake of the Limbaugh firestorm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has raised more than $1 million with a new “War on Women” campaign, and Obama’s reelection campaign has launched a series of “Women’s House Parties” to organise female volunteers.
Even the President himself has waded into the issue. He called Fluke last week to offer his “encouragement and support.” On Monday, the White House announced he will deliver the commencement address at Barnard College.
This routing by the Democrats has put the Republicans in a potentially perilous political position going into the 2012 election. As the Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty points out, a spate of recent polling suggests that the GOP has lost its recent gains with female voters and is now getting trounced by Democrats all the way down the ticket.
Democrats clearly have no intention of ceding this new advantage. In a conference call with reporters yesterday, Obama’s senior campaign strategist David Axelrod used Mitt Romney’s timid response to Limbaugh as a broader metaphor for his weakness as a candidate.
“If you don’t have the strength to stand up to the most strident voices in your party, how will you stand up to Ahmadinejad?” Axelrod said. “This is not a game. You’re running for president of the United States. When you stake out positions in the middle of the campaign you’re going to be held to those positions.”
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