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Is the Republican party waging a "War on Women," and if so, are they winning it? The answers to these questions depend on whether you perceive the nasty legislative battle over the Obama administration's health care mandate as one over religious liberty or women's reproductive health.
Leading Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum say the president is trampling religious freedom by forcing employers to comply with a national health care law requiring insurers to provide contraceptive services for women. A Bloomberg poll released Wednesday reports that 62 percent of respondents think otherwise. (The poll also indicated that Democrats aren't actually benefiting from the debate.)
So just what are Republican legislators doing? Following the failure to pass the controversial Blunt Amendment -- which would have allowed employers to opt out of providing contraception coverage if it violated their beliefs, like, for instance, devout mysoginists -- national lawmakers largely abandoned the issue, if not the rhetoric. But at least nine Republican-led states aren't ready to move on, proposing to expand contraception exemptions or moving symbolic condemnations of the law. In Arizona, lawmakers take their support of religious liberty a step further than others, working to legalize firing workers over birth control use.
What began with fallout over the Komen foundation's now-rescinded decision to unfund Planned Parenthood and led to the Virginia invasive ultrasound bill (imposing barriers on a woman's choice to abort) segued effortlessly into the character assassination of Sandra Fluke -- which has now devolved into attacks over the student activist's "rich socialist boyfriend" and a vacation that apparently included some alcohol consumption.
Then on Thursday, the story grew to envelop a Senate fight over the Violence Against Women Act, which provides funding to investigate domestic violence, passed with bipartisan consensus in 1994. Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly says the law led to "divorce, breakup of marriage and hatred of men." Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski cautioned her party that it was "at risk of being successfully painted as anti-woman," The New York Times reported.
Whichever side you sit on, it's hard not to connect the dots here. Republicans accuse Democrats of political point-scoring; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Dems were "manufacturing fights" over the Women Act. (Murkowski doesn't see it that way. "This is too important an issue for women and men and families that we not address it," she said.)
McConnell's argument isn't, of course, unimaginable -- U.S. politics seem to be a no-holds-barred arena. But, in response, why are Republican legislators playing into this narrative? Maybe it's because, despite public outrage, they think they're the ones winning all the points. Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review certainly thinks so: "The issue is likely to help Republicans in the fall, if they can keep their wits about them," he writes. For the current field of Republican presidential candidates, that's a very big "if."
Follow Brayden Simms on Twitter @metropolitik