If you've been watching Democratic operatives, liberal bloggers, and cable news for the last month or so, you'd get the impression that the so-called "war on women" will be the Republican Party's Waterloo. Specifically, you'd get the impression that it's a big loser for the GOP (and a handful of Democrats) to push to let employers continue choosing (as they can now) whether to provide contraceptive coverage.
After Rush Limbaugh's inartful and offensive comments about Sandra Fluke -- one of the activists working for state-mandated contraceptive coverage -- I certainly believed that this argument was lost in the political realm, and that Catholic businessmen and religious institutions would have to rely on the courts to preserve First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.
But then new polls began to come out suggesting that this issue isn't the boon that the social Left would have you think it is. It is hard to tell -- the polls on the issue have been very fickle and perhaps even contradictory, depending largely on how the question is asked. But there's an easier way to see how the debate is affecting the presidential race, and that's to look at how President Obama is doing overall. He actually lost a bit of ground among women as this debate occurred, the latest ABC/Washington Post's poll showed.
Then there's the new CBS/NYT poll, which contained these two questions:
73. Do you think health insurance plans for all employees should have to cover the full cost of birth control for their female employees, or should employers be allowed to opt out of covering that based on religious or moral objections?
Cover birth control 40
Allowed to opt out 51
Depends (vol.) 3
74. What about for religiously affiliated employers, such as a hospital or university? Do you think their health insurance plans for all employees should have to cover the full cost of birth control for their female employees, or should they be allowed to opt out of covering that based on religious or moral objections?
Cover birth control 36
Allowed to opt out 57
Depends (vol.) 2
These questions seem to be framed fairly, unless I'm missing something.
The moral of the story is not that this is good politics for the GOP, but that it's not an overwhelming issue for anyone. Yes, probably some people have gotten the idea that conservatives are scolds, and there exists anecdotal evidence (as in this New York Times piece) that the issue is hurting them. But by the same token, no one appreciates the mocking tone taken toward religious belief by many of the Left's loudest voices online. The polling suggests that few are moved by this, and that only the Democratic Party's staunchest supporters take the "war on women" meme seriously.
Meanwhile, if the conservative position in favor of religious toleration is creating a mass alienation of average voters, it isn't showing up in the polls. For Republicans, there's no political incentive to back down from the First Amendment principles involved. The political benefit of the issue is limited for them, too. It may strengthen the political convictions of the religiously devout, and of those who appreciate the broader implications of imposing their morality on employers with certain religious beliefs.
On the other hand, my own inbox provides an illustration that this has been a terrific fundraising issue for the Left. Both Democratic congressional committees have gone to this well repeatedly in the last few weeks -- I have 13 fundraising emails including the words "war on women" from the DCCC in the last few weeks, and ten from the DSCC. Other groups cashing in include but are not limited to MoveOn.org and Daily Kos. As with the abortion debate, the social Left at times fails to appreciate that their greatest political strength is in dollars, not in numbers.