At the very top of the Washington GOP Establishment, however, there was a dawning recognition that a grave danger had arisen—not to women, but to their own brand. A month of noisy Republican intrusion into women’s health and sex organs, amplified by the megaphone of Limbaugh’s aria, was a potentially apocalyptic combination for an election year. No one expressed this fear more nakedly than Peggy Noonan, speaking, again with Stephanopoulos, on ABC’s This Week. After duly calling out Rush for being “crude, rude, even piggish,” she added: “But what he said was also destructive. It confused the issue. It played into this trope that the Republicans have a war on women. No, they don’t, but he made it look that way.”
Note that she found Limbaugh “destructive” not because he was harming women but because he was harming her party. But the problem wasn’t that Limbaugh confused the issue. His real transgression was that he had given away the GOP game, crystallizing an issue that had been in full view for weeks. That’s why his behavior resonated with and angered so many Americans who otherwise might have tuned out his rant as just another sloppy helping of his aging shtick. It’s precisely because there is a Republican war on women that he hit a nerve. And surely no one knows that better than Noonan, a foot soldier in some of the war’s early battles well before Rush became a phenomenon. In her 1990 memoir about her service in the Reagan administration, What I Saw at the Revolution, she recalls likening Americans who favored legal abortions to Germans who favored killing Jews—a construct Limbaugh wouldn’t seize on and popularize (“feminazis”) until Reagan was leaving office and Anita Hill and Hillary Clinton emerged on the national stage.
GOP apologists like Noonan are hoping now that Limbaugh and Limbaugh alone will remain the issue—a useful big fat idiot whom Republicans can scapegoat for all the right’s misogynistic sins and use as a club to smack down piggish liberal media stars. The hope is that he will change the subject of the conversation altogether, from a Republican war on women to, as Noonan now frames it, the bipartisan “coarsening of discourse in public life.” That’s a side issue, if not a red herring. Coarse and destructive as sexist invective is—whether deployed by Limbaugh or liberals—it is nonetheless policies and laws that inflict the most insidious and serious casualties in the war on women. It’s Republicans in power, not radio talk-show hosts or comedians or cable-news anchors, who try and too often succeed at enacting punitive measures aimed at more than half the population. The war on women is rightly named because those who are waging it do real harm to real women with their actions, not words.
If that war were all about Rush Limbaugh—or all about abortion—it would be easy to understand and perhaps easy to file away as the same old same old. But a sweeping edict with full GOP support like the Blunt Amendment, which has nothing to do with abortion, indicates how much broader the animus is. The Republican Party in its pathological reaction to the rise of Obama has now moved so far to the right that it seems determined to turn back the clock to that supposedly halcyon time when Ralph Kramden was king of his domestic castle. Back then, as Santorum would have it, women just didn’t do things “counter to how things are supposed to be.”
For much of its history, misogyny was not the style of the party of Lincoln. For most of the twentieth century, the GOP was ahead of the curve in bestowing women’s rights. When the Nineteenth Amendment granting suffrage was ratified in 1920, roughly three-quarters of the 36 state legislatures that did so were controlled by Republicans. In 1940, the GOP mandated that women be equally represented in its national and executive committees—a standard not imposed by the Democrats until more than three decades later.
Barry Goldwater’s wife Peggy, inspired by a Margaret Sanger lecture in Phoenix in 1937, would help build one of the nation’s largest Planned Parenthood affiliates. Her husband favored abortion rights. “I think the average woman feels, ‘My God, that’s my business,’ and that’s the way we should keep it,” he said late in his career. Prescott Bush, the Connecticut senator who sired a presidential dynasty, was another Sanger enthusiast and treasurer for the first national Planned Parenthood fund-raising campaign. His son George, when a congressman in the sixties, was an ardent birth-control advocate and the principal Republican author of the trailblazing Family Planning Act of 1970. Capitol Hill colleagues jokingly nicknamed him “Rubbers.”