At the beginning of the political season for the 2012 race, the Obama administration began enforcing a piece of the Affordable Health Care Act (Obamacare, if you're a conservative) requiring everyone who provides health insurance to their employees to include contraceptive devices, birth control pills, and other such services in their coverage.
This, of course, immediately produced a firestorm, especially among Catholics and other religious-affiliated hospitals, schools, universities, and other organizations. It took Obama just a couple of days after the Health and Human Services department launched this ruling to reverse himself. The President has gone on the air, given a press conference, and said that the mandate for contraceptives would be adjusted in such a way that institutions for whom birth control essentially runs counter to their moral values and principles do not have to provide birth control as part of their medical coverage. Instead, the insurance companies have to make that option available to people working for such religious organizations, if those people choose to include contraceptives as part of their health insurance plan at no cost.
Is this a huge boo-boo for the President? Or is it, as some contrarians argue, in fact a very clever and a deliberate launching of a controversy, one which would produce tremendous backlash from conservative Republicans?
The argument goes like this. Over 90 percent of American women use birth control medication, devices, or products at some point in their life to avoid pregnancy. Contraception is a very important health care issue for women in the United States. By raising this issue, the Obama administration may have meant to point out that Republicans are not very understanding or very supportive of these sorts of services, policies, or products.
In fact, this issue plows right into an existential problem for Republicans: the "gender gap." The GOP has had a continuous and serious deficit in the support it receives from women in the United States. Gentry Collins, the former political director for the RNC, made that point sharply when he was a guest in my class a few years ago.
Neither party can afford to lose a demographic such as women and turn it over to their opposition. Elections are simply too close.
Add to this the fact that Rick Santorum recently answered a question about the military by talking about how he was not comfortable with men and women sharing foxholes on the front lines.
"I think that could be a very compromising situation," Santorum said, "where people naturally may do things that may not be in the interest of the mission, because of other types of emotions that are involved." This was immediately interpreted by much of the news media as meaning that he either felt that the women would distract the men on the front lines, and therefore endanger their combat alertness; that there might be “hanky panky”; or that women are not prepared emotionally to be effective in combat roles.
I saw a panel of all-Republican strategists and activists being asked what they thought Santorum meant by his comments. They recoiled. They said they'd really didn't know what he was talking about.
Regardless of what he really meant, when you are under the political electron microscope, you can’t say things that will harm you. Mitt Romney should never have said that he didn’t care about poor people, even though that’s not what he meant—the rest of the field should apply that lesson to issues of gender and culture, too.
Santorum's just the latest offender. During an election cycle that's featured Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain, the GOP needs to be very sensitive to the concerns of women. They will be the most crucial of the swing voters come November.