The hotly debated issue in Congress today has been the Blunt Amendment, Sen. Roy Blunt's bill that would allow employers to refuse to provide contraception to women if they said doing so violated their "conscience or religious beliefs." The bill was just defeated in the Senate by a vote of 51 to 48. This means things have gone just about perfectly for the Democrats, and for the Obama Administration. Make no bones about it: Women's rights are being played on both sides of the political arena. In a recent article in The New York Times, Jennifer Steinhauer and Helene Cooper pointed out that this fight is one "Democrats are perfectly please to have" -- "with the cameras running and the microphones on," of course.
Obviously, Democrats have been very hopeful that this whole discussion of contraception for women would play in their favor. Republicans, on the other hand, have clung to the idea of religious liberty as their talking point on the issue -- quite possibly losing many of the women who might have otherwise stuck with them, particularly after the various seemingly sexist hiccups that have come from that side. Of course, there's not a straight black-and-white line dividing Democrats and Republicans on the issue; there's a variety of debate, and dissent, within the parties themselves. As the Los Angeles Times' Lisa Mascaro reported, "The 51-48 vote to table the Republican measure showed dissent among the GOP, as several Republican senators said the legislation was too broad for their support." But what voters hear about tends to fall along political lines because those extremes are how each camp hopes to win voters -- and the presentation of those extremes is how the media gets people reading.
It's a bit of a risky proposition to focus on birth control in a presidential election year, which seems reflected in Mitt Romney's response to questions on how he felt about the bill -- first saying he was against, because contraception should be between a "husband and wife," then quickly being corrected by his aides to say that he hadn't understood the question and did support the bill.
Meanwhile, despite stated worries from the White House that they wanted to be cautious so as not to alienate independent or moderate voters, the official Barack Obama Tumblr went all in (and, quite possibly, viral) with a post displaying a mock authorization form they created. It shows, they argue, what women might have to go through in an attempt to get birth control, "If Mitt Romney and a few Republican senators get their way." This is not exactly unbiased phrasing.
Posted two hours ago, it already had 933 notes, likes, and reblogs with comments ranging from "That's disgusting" to "WHAT IS THIS SHIT??" at the time of this post. There's a real point here, obviously -- and whether that's good or bad, at least in this case, depends on how you feel about a woman's right to choose what happens with her body, and whether she should have full access to the health care that will help her best protect those choices. But beyond that is an example of some pretty deft new media politicking, and use of the Internet and its unique powers. Fear of alienation of voters apparently has no place there.
Stephanie Cutter, Obama's deputy campaign manager, told Reuters that Romney's flip-flopping remarks about the Blunt bill "showed why women don't trust him for one minute." One can easily imagine that this is what the Democrats hope that American women are starting to feel overall about the Republican party. Keep in mind, however, that the death of this amendment is the result of just one skirmish in a much larger war. And as much as political rhetoric focuses on the issue, women's health and women's rights are not merely issues of political rhetoric. They are real things.