How the Contraception Contretemps Might Not Be So Bad for Mitt Romney

By Mike Dorf

If you had asked me just a month ago to list issues that Republicans might use to try to appeal to conservative voters, I'm pretty sure that contraception would not have made my top 20.  What would have?  Well, let's see, there would be the social issues: Abortion; same-sex marriage; school prayer; affirmative action; rights of criminal defendants; teaching of creationism; etc.  There would have been the anti-government issues: bailouts; deficits; debt; size of government; too much regulation; global warming is a hoax; Obamacare is a conspiracy; taxes; taxes; and taxes.  There would have been appeals to patriotism: Dems and Obama in particular are weak on defense; multilateralists; Europhiles; insufficiently supportive of Israel; apologists for America; etc. And maybe there would be some made up non-issue issues like flag burning, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the "Ground Zero Mosque."  But contraception?  Really?

According to the Guttmacher Institute, over 99% of American women who have ever had sexual intercourse have used at least one form of contraception.  And I'm guessing that nearly all of the men who were their sexual partners supported that choice.  So as wedge issues go, this is simply a terrible choice.  It's hard not to agree with what must surely be the conventional wisdom, even on the right: That the attack on contraception comes from ideological zealots who are alienating moderate voters and thus helping President Obama and Congressional Democrats politically.

I think at the end of the day I agree with that conventional wisdom, but here I want to explore the possibility that maybe this issue will end up either not harming or even helping Mitt Romney, assuming he ends up as the Republican nominee.  Perhaps I'm just seeing a cloud behind the silver lining, but bear with me.

How can this help Romney?  Well, the dynamic seems straightforward enough.  For Americans conditioned to think of politics as almost entirely relative, Romney is the centrist relative to Santorum the extremist on social issues, including contraception.  To be sure, what passes for centrism is extreme by the measures of even the recent past, but simply by talking about giving employers conscientious objections to providing health insurance that covers contraception, the Bishops, Santorum, Senator Roy Blunt, Limbaugh, and others on the hard/crazy right opened up space a few centimeters on their left for others to look like moderates.

The problem with this narrative, of course, is that Romney did not occupy that space--or to be more accurate, after occupying that space, he walked it back because he's . . . you know . . . running for President as a Republican.  And so, the conventional narrative continues, once Romney secures the Republican nomination, he won't be able to pivot back to being a Massachusetts moderate because there he will be, on the record for the Blunt amendment (and "self-deportation" etc).

Except that maybe Romney will be able to pivot after all.  To my mind, the most astute observation about American politics uttered in the last 50 years was former Wyoming Republican Senator Alan Simpson's incredibly cynical explanation for why, he thought, Republicans would not pay a price at the polls for the unpopular impeachment of President Clinton.  Simpson said: ''The attention span of Americans is, 'Which movie is coming out next month?' and whether the quarterly report on their stock will change.''

Is that entirely fair?  Probably not.  But it's not entirely unfair either.  For voters who are broadly unfamiliar with a candidate's actual performance, the narrative matters more than the facts.  Consider that in the 2008 primaries -- closer in time to Romney's term as Massachusetts Governor -- Romney was winning very conservative Republican voters, who saw him as the conservative alternative to John McCain, whom they regarded as moderate, even though any fair comparison of McCain's record as a Senator with Romney's record as a Governor would clearly show McCain to the right of Romney on most issues.  Then the narrative was Romney the conservative versus McCain the maverick, and Republican primary voters bought it.  Now the narrative is Romney the less-conservative-than-Santorum-but-still-conservative candidate, and this is probably going to work well enough for him to secure the nomination.  

But shouldn't that still cause trouble for Romney in the general?  Maybe, maybe not.  General election swing voters who have been paying close attention will either be turned off by Romney's insincerity or perhaps reassured by it, thinking that as President he would govern as a centrist.  But most swing voters in the general election will not remember much of anything from what has been going on in the primaries because they have not been paying close attention and so, in this view, the flap over contraception could even help Romney because all they'll remember will be that he wasn't the guy in the sweater vest attacking contraception.

Will that work?  I hope not.  Perhaps the Obama campaign and Dem-leaning SuperPACs will successfully saturate the airwaves with footage of Romney kowtowing to hard-right social conservatives, but we can assume that the Romney campaign and Repub-leaning SuperPACs will produce enough noise of their own so that the average swing voter doesn't know what to believe about any of the candidates -- and votes based on the price of gasoline.