The conservative movement has provided a model of strategic thinking for over 30 years. For example, the GOP began cutting taxes fully aware that it would aggressively expand the debt, only to create a climate where decimating Social Security and Medicare can be pitched as a “necessity” rather than an unthinkable destruction of the social safety net. So why are they so dumb on this contraceptives issue?
While the Rush Limbaugh episode is the most egregious example, most conservative commentators are making the same demeaning remarks about Sandra Fluke (as one example, Ron Ross from American Spectator, who labels a law student a “coed” in the title). Putting aside the “religious liberty” arguments that elected officials are trying and failing to sell, the basis of the mainstream conservative argument is that there’s no reason for employers to pay to support sex. While many of us are fine with this for health and family reasons, it’s a compelling complaint.
Unfortunately for the conservatives, the Democrats are smarter than that and have focused the birth control debate on subjects like treating ovarian cysts and cancer — alternative uses for birth control. Even though the majority of contraception use will have nothing to do with these health issues, the Democratic narrative has forced conservatives into a corner. And thus, the conservatives have mostly just ignored these health issues.
But conservatives could win this argument by taking a moment to think strategically — just demand that the rule be amended to require coverage of contraception prescribed for treatment of these health issues. It neutralizes the sympathetic liberal argument, makes the GOP appear reasonable by making limited compromises, and refocuses the debate on the ground the conservatives want — they want us to pay to support sex.
This reveals the Achilles Heel in the conservative movement. To build their brilliant long-term strategy they created a theology and whipped up a religious fervor complete with its own talk radio clergy. And none of these people are as cynical as the founders of this strategy — the Lee Atwaters and Karl Roves of the world. These grassroots conservatives demand ideological purity and hamstring the GOP from making the strategic moves that can win the individual debates of the day. Exploiting these weaknesses will be key for the progressive movement going forward.