How has an election year that was supposed to be all about economic recovery suddenly become all about sex? Critics blame the media. They have a point. The media keep reporting what the candidates are saying.
When you have made social issues like abortion, gay marriage and reproductive rights your central issues, you should not be shocked that media cover them. Yet, when you look at the extreme positions into which social conservatives have pushed the Republican Party, it’s not hard to see why their candidates would like to change the subject.
That became harder to do as this year’s most decisive issue, the sluggish economy, has shown signs of improvement. Promising news like Friday’s report that consumer confidence was up for the sixth straight month takes at least some of the steam out of Republican anger over President Barack Obama’s handling of the economy.
What’s troubling for many Republicans is how social issues of gay rights and reproductive rights have sprung up into the news at a time when public opinion, particularly among independent voters, is moving away from conservative positions on those old culture war issues.
Even Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator whose rise to the top tier of Republican presidential candidates has come largely on the shoulders of social conservatives, was sounding like a flip-flopper in the Arizona presidential debate on the issue of contraceptives.
Before the debate, he had said that as president, he would talk about “the dangers of contraception in this country.” He also gave a lawyerly response to the question of whether he thought states had the right to ban contraceptives. That response gave listeners the impression that he wanted states to do that — and that he, as president, might ban contraceptives too.
He has vehemently denied that, pointing out that, although he personally disapproves of contraceptives, he has voted in favor of them for others. As a firm supporter of access to contraceptives, as polls show most Americans are by a wide margin, I nevertheless will allow the former senator to have it both ways on that issue. By the same logic, I forgive liberal Democrats who deplore abortion personally but defend the right of others to choose.
I was further encouraged by Santorum’s professed support for Title X, the federal program that provides contraceptive services for low-income women. In past statements and in his 2006 book “It Takes a Family,” Santorum touts his support for Title X.
This record offered him a convenient defense when he was embarrassed by his own mega-donor Foster Friess, who notoriously suggested in an television interview that women practice birth control by holding an aspirin between their knees. If Friess never heard about political correctness before he told that old wheeze of a joke, he knows about it now.
But days after Santorum cited his support for Title X in a CBS interview and again on Fox News, he stated flatly at the presidential debate in Mesa, Ariz., that he was against it.
In response to his rival Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, Santorum said, “As Congressman Paul knows, I opposed Title X funding. I’ve always opposed Title X funding, but it’s included in a large appropriation bill that includes a whole host of other things, including …”
He was interrupted at that point by booing from the crowd and by front-runner Mitt Romney as the former senator tried to explain that he opposed Title X and only voted for it as part of larger pieces of legislation.
“I think I was making it clear that,” he sputtered somewhat defensively, “while I have a personal moral objection to it; even though I don’t support it, that I voted for bills that included it. And I made it very clear in subsequent interviews that I don’t — I don’t support that. …”
More booing. In moments like that, Santorum’s reputation for consistency was shattered up against the pragmatic realities of compromises that are a part of legislating. Unfortunately for him, they are the sort of retreats from principles and ideological purity that his party’s populist tea-party wing regularly condemns.
As long as the party’s right wing seeks perfection in mere mortal politicians, its members will be disappointed, especially when they’re talking about matters as touchy as sex.