The Republicans’ gamble that they could ride a backlash against the Obama administration’s efforts to increase the availability of contraception has gone terribly bad. It turns out that most Americans, especially women, agree that insurance companies should have to cover contraception – for example, birth control pills – in their health insurance plans.
One result of this battle has been a record gender gap in the presidential race, with President Obama leading likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney by a huge margin of 57-38 percent among women registered voters. A recent Gallup poll of swing states has Obama leading by a 2-1 margin among women under 50.
Romney will try to narrow this gap in the general election, but it may not be so easy. He is on the record saying that he would like to “get rid of” Planned Parenthood, as well as eliminate federal funding under the Title X program. This is a federal program that provides grants that pay for reproductive health services, including birth control and cancer screening (but not abortion), for millions of Americans, mostly women.
Those who see the current assault on women’s reproductive and health rights as part of a Republican “War on Women” are correct. In 2011, there were a record number of restrictions on abortion passed by the states. One of the most hideous and outrageous is a Texas law requiring that a woman seeking an abortion submit to an ultra-sound procedure in which a probe is inserted into her vagina. A number of observers have compared this to state-ordered rape. “If you look up the term rape, that’s what it is: the penetration of the vagina without the woman’s consent,” said Alabama state senator Linda Coleman.
Other states have passed laws banning health insurance from covering abortion, as well as requiring unnecessary medical procedures and delays. These laws are attempts to make it more difficult for women to exercise their legal right to terminate a pregnancy.
South Carolina governor Nikki Haley’s now infamous dismissal, that “Women don’t care about contraception. They care about jobs and their families . . .” was significant. Of course they care about jobs and their families, as well as their rights as women. But her party has had nothing to offer on the jobs and families front for the past four decades, or on other economic issues. They have chosen a whole set of policies to make the rich richer and the majority of American women and men poorer: from union-busting to tax cuts to de-industrialization, and anti-stimulus policies during our worst recession since the Great Depression. And now they promise more of the same, with spending cuts for the poor and unemployed, and tax cuts for the rich.
It is for these reasons that Republican strategy for four decades has been focused on creating a false populist appeal to white swing voters – who are mostly working class — based on appeals to racism, religious extremism, anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-gay attitudes and other “cultural” issues. The current “war on women” is just another one of the ugly locations to which this strategy has taken them, as they build their bridge to the 17thcentury.
In the last few years this strategy has broken down, mostly because the Great Recession and weak recovery have focused voters’ attention on the economy. But this latest fight shows that Republicans are losing their “culture wars” even on their own terms.
Some have complained that Democrats are “politicizing” gender issues, but this is what democracy looks like: if one party carries out an assault on the majority of voters – in this case women – their political opposition is going to make an electoral issue out of it. As they should.
Mark Weisbrot is an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: the Phony Crisis.
This article originally appeared in the Sacramento Bee.