At the time, back in January in New Hampshire, it didn’t seem like that big a deal, certainly nothing to rival previous debate flash points like “9-9-9” and “Oops!” But in retrospect it may have been one of the more fateful twists of the Republican presidential campaign. The exchange was prompted by George Stephanopoulos, who seemingly out of nowhere asked Mitt Romney if he shared Rick Santorum’s view that “states have the right to ban contraception.” Romney stiffened, as he is wont to do, and took the tone of a men’s club factotum tut-tutting a member for violating the dress code. “George, this is an unusual topic that you’re raising,” he said. “I know of no reason to talk about contraception in this regard.” The partisan audience would soon jeer the moderator for his effrontery.
Afterward, Romney’s spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom accused Stephanopoulos of asking “the oddest question in a debate this year” and of having “a strange obsession with contraception.” It was actually Santorum who had the strange obsession. He had first turned the subject into a cause in October by talking about “the dangers of contraception in this country.” Birth control is “not okay,” he said then. “It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”
As we know now, Santorum, flaky though he may sound, is not some outlier in his party or in its presidential field. He was an advance man for a rancorous national brawl about to ambush an unsuspecting America that thought women’s access to birth control had been resolved by the Supreme Court almost a half century ago.
The hostilities would break out just weeks after the New Hampshire debate, with the back-to-back controversies of the White House health-care rule on contraceptives and the Komen Foundation’s dumping of Planned Parenthood. Though those two conflicts ended with speedy cease-fires, an emboldened GOP kept fighting. It had women’s sex lives on the brain and would not stop rolling out jaw-dropping sideshows: an all-male panel at a hearing on birth control in the House. A fat-cat Santorum bankroller joking that “gals” could stay out of trouble by putting Bayer aspirin “between their knees.” A Virginia governor endorsing a state bill requiring that an ultrasound “wand” be inserted into the vagina of any woman seeking an abortion.
It’s not news that the GOP is the anti-abortion party, that it panders to the religious right, and that it’s particularly dependent on white men with less education and less income—a displaced demographic that has been as threatened by the rise of the empowered modern woman as it has been by the cosmopolitan multiracial male elites symbolized by Barack Obama. That aggrieved class is, indeed, Santorum’s constituency. But, as Stephanopoulos was trying to get at when he challenged Romney, this new rush of anti-woman activity on the right isn’t coming exclusively from the Santorum crowd. It’s a phenomenon extending across the GOP. On March 1, every Republican in the Senate except the about-to-flee Olympia Snowe—that would be 45 in total—voted for the so-called Blunt Amendment, which would allow any employer with any undefined “moral” objection to veto any provision in health-care coverage, from birth control to mammograms to diabetes screening for women (or, for that matter, men) judged immorally overweight.
After the Blunt Amendment lost (albeit by only three votes), public attention to the strange 2012 Republican fixation on women might have dissipated had it not been for Rush Limbaugh. His verbal assault on a female Georgetown University law student transformed what half-attentive onlookers might have tracked as a hodgepodge of discrete and possibly fleeting primary-season skirmishes into a big-boned narrative—a full-fledged Republican war on women. And in part because Limbaugh pumped up his hysteria for three straight days, he gave that war a unifying theme: pure unadulterated misogyny.
The GOP Establishment didn’t know what to do about Rush. Conservatives had tried to make the case that the only issue at stake in the contraception debate was religious liberty—Obama’s health-care czars forcing religiously affiliated institutions (or more specifically Catholic institutions) to pay for birth-control coverage (which 98 percent of sexually active American Catholic women use at some point, according to the Guttmacher Institute). But the Obama administration had walked back that rule in a compromise acceptable to mainstream Catholics, including the Catholic Health Association. So what was Rush yelling about now except his own fantasies (videos included) about this young woman’s sex life?
The right’s immediate solution was simple: The best defense of Rush was a good offense. He was guilty mainly of a poor choice of words (as he himself said in his “apology”) and so was really no different from Bill Maher, Ed Schultz, and Keith Olbermann, among other liberal hypocrites who had used “slut,” “whore,” or worse to slime Republican women. It was an entirely valid point—and also a convenient distraction from Virginia’s vaginal wands, Congressman Darrell Issa’s all-male panel, Foster Friess’s aspirin-between-the-knees, and that ugly Blunt business in the Senate.