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In the latest installation of the culture war, Republican senators failed Thursday to secure the votes necessary to pass the so-called Blunt amendment, alternately known as “the conscience clause,” which would have allowed employers to opt-out of the Obama administration’s controversial insurance mandate — specifically the rule that forces insurers to provide such women’s health services as birth control.


Republican Sen. Roy Blunt said the proposal “simply preserves and protects the fundamental religious freedom that Americans have enjoyed for more than 220 years.” Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer, however, called it “dangerous,” fearing that the law’s broad language could allow employers to exclude workers from any and all coverage they find morally suspect — including routine surgery to fix broken bones, for instance, if the boss happens to belong to the Christian Science Church.


Blunt vows that the issue will not go away, and he may be right on that front, though perhaps to his party’s detriment. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey from mid-February finds that, despite a nearly even split on the Affordable Care Act — 42 percent of respondents held a favorable view of the law, 43 percent unfavorable — most Americans still trust the president over Republicans to handle the health care issue. (Some 58 percent trust the president “to make the right decisions about the future of the [health care] law,” compared with a range of between 33 and 43 percent for his GOP rivals.)


As Republicans take aim at Obama in the 2012 elections, it is worth considering how they damage their brand by focusing on unpopular social issues in the midst of the nation’s most painful modern recession. Mitt Romney, to give just one example, furthered the narrative of his own flip-floppiness this week when he first publically disagreed with, and then, following right-wing outrage, immediately supported, the amendment. (“The idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception ... I’m not going there,” Romney said early on Wednesday. Later in the day his stance had changed dramatically: “Of course I support the Blunt amendment,” he said.)

“Of course,” indeed: Romney’s sudden, if predictable, change of heart — moving steadily to the right, likely as a means of courting doubtful primary voters — represents the recent trend of radicalization in Republican politics. The week that moderate GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe announced she would not seek re-election (“I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change,” she said), conservatives would do well to run the numbers.

Republicans gamble everything in opposing Obama. If they succeed in November, it will have been worth marginalizing the few party centrists; but they won’t take him down by scaring off the middle.

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