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Why Right-Wingers' Hatred of Modern Women Is Going to Cost Them the Birth Control Battle (and a Whole Lot of Votes)

Conservatives are going wildly off-message when it comes to the fight over contraception.

For many pundits and politicians on the Right, the visceral impulse to shame women for being in control of their own sexuality is so overwhelming that they appear to be totally incapable of maintaining their usual message discipline. That's going to cost them the fight over contraception.

The polling on the Obama administration's recent “accommodation” with the Catholic bishops reveals an important trend. When the issue is framed as a battle over “religious liberty” for institutions associated with the church, Americans are deeply divided. When it's about access to contraception, they're not – overwhelming majorities are in favor of mandating that religiously affiliated employers provide their workers with insurance that covers birth control.

The numbers don't lie. A Pew poll that offered little in the way of explanation of the new rule asked those who had heard about it (62 percent of respondents) whether “religiously affiliated institutions that object to the use of contraceptives should be given an exemption from the rule,” and found that a plurality sided with the bishops (by a margin of 48-44).

But a CBS/ New York Times Poll found that when some background was offered, and the question was worded a bit differently so that the emphasis was on contraception (“Should religious employers be required to cover contraception?”), the results were very different. Both self-identified Catholics and the larger public favored the rule by a healthy 2-1 margin.

Surveying this landscape, some of the more strategically minded voices on the Right insist that this fight has nothing to do with contraception. On NBC's Meet the Press this week, Rep Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, said this is "not an issue about contraception," but rather, Obama treating “our constitutional rights as if they’re revocable,” being “paternalistic, arrogant” and "violating our First Amendment rights … [to] freedom of religion.” Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, an adviser to Newt Gingrich, told Politico that Republican efforts to beat back the provision “won't inhibit any woman’s ability to access contraception.” She added: “the question is should we pay for it, and should conscientious objectors be forced to compromise their beliefs.” And Reason magazine chipped in with an impenetrable column titled, “It’s Not About Contraception,” which references Frederic Bastiat's The Law (as libertarians are wont to do) and argues that the battle at hand is one pitting “negative versus positive 'rights.'”

Most progressives have come to hold a grudging admiration for the conservative movement's message discipline. We're often impressed by the way the entire movement repeats and reinforces its preferred narrative on most issues – from the most obscure bloggers in the fever swamps of wingnuttia to the Republican caucus in the senate. There's real power in that discipline. Gradually, the constant repetition of preferred frames seeps into mainstream reporters' coverage and ultimately influences the views of the majority of Americans who don't follow the issues terribly closely.

This is the way we're used to seeing this work, but it isn't happening this time around. Rick Santorum, a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, said, “One of the things I will talk about that no president has talked about before is... the dangers of contraception in this country, the whole sexual libertine idea.” He added: “Many in the Christian faith have said, ‘Well, that’s okay. Contraception’s okay.’ It’s not okay because it’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”

Last week, Santorum's fat-cat backer, Foster Fliess, made waves with his comment about how back in his day, “they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn't that costly.”

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