Feature:Opinion

The war on reason

David Fontaine Mitchell Commentator and Author

It has been an exercise in futility to find a news outlet not covering the supposed “war on women” in at least some detail. Where did this phrase come from, and why has it suddenly re-entered our political lexicon?

The first declaration of “war” this political cycle was issued by Republicans via the misnomer “war on religion.” Rick Perry was the first major public figure to introduce this phrase with his “Strong” ad, which ran in Iowa back in December in anticipation of the state’s caucus. Governor Perry claimed, “As president, I’ll end Obama’s war on religion, and I’ll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage.” The ad was widely mocked on the Internet and ultimately did more damage than good for the Perry campaign. However, it did introduce a hot-button debate topic for the media to play with: Was Obama waging a war on religion in the United States?

Initially, Governor Perry’s declaration seemed like nothing more than a typical platitude, as found in most political ads. However, it was soon narrowed to specifically address the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s (PPACA) contraception mandate. Seeing this as an opportunity to create a wedge issue during an election year, Republicans took the ball and ran with it. Speaker John Boehner took to the House floor and denounced the Obama administration for its “unambiguous attack on religious freedom in our country.” Various other senior Republican officeholders echoed this sentiment in the days and weeks thereafter, making waves in the news media throughout the month of February.

Although the law was passed over two years ago, the mandate doesn’t go into effect until this August (January 1, 2013 for calendar year plans) and will require all new insurance plans issued by employers and educational institutions to provide contraceptive coverage. Religious enterprises (such as certain hospitals, colleges and charities) are not exempt from this mandate and will, therefore, be forced to include this coverage in their plans. However, these groups are offered a one-year enforcement safe harbor (their mandate won’t go into effect until August 1, 2013), and religious employers (such as churches and synagogues) are permanently exempt from complying.

Some have reached the conclusion that the Obama administration is waging a “war on religion” for not providing an exemption for religious enterprises. Personally, I see the mandate not only as an attack on individual liberty for all employers, but also poor economic policy (like much of the PPACA). One of the primary causes for skyrocketing health insurance costs is mandates: States pass regulations that require insurers to cover various types of care and, as a result, costs go up for the consumer. Healthy individuals in their twenties may not want a plan that includes substance abuse coverage and acupuncturist treatment, but if they live in certain states, they are out of luck, as it is mandated by law (for a rather humorous video on this topic by Reason.tv’s Remy, click here).

If the contraception mandate only applied to religious enterprises, I could see how the “war on religion” meme could work; but it applies to all employers (with the specific exclusion of churches, synagogues and mosques), and therefore must be explained as such. Let’s speculate that I am an atheist business owner who refuses to provide contraceptive coverage in my employee health plan because A) I can’t afford it or B) I just plain don’t want to. Isn’t the mandate as much an attack on my freedom as it is on a religious organization’s?

The right has never been particularly good at debating platitudes tailored toward people’s emotions; however, it happens to be the left’s forte. It was therefore not surprising when Democrats countered the supposed “war on religion” with a manufactured crisis of their own: the “war on women.”

I began hearing rumors here in Virginia late last year that the Democratic Party was planning to make social issues the focal point of the 2012 election. And from a purely political standpoint, you can’t blame them. For starters, unemployment is up, the deficit is skyrocketing, the debt is ballooning, gas is over $4 a gallon (and as a result, the price of everything is increasing) and millions of people have dropped out of the labor force. For a party that currently holds the White House, these facts can be devastating in an election year. Democrats have thus been doing everything they can to paint their Republican opponents as radicals when it comes to women’s rights. The objective is to scare people into believing that their access to contraception, mammograms and other health needs specifically tailored toward women will be eliminated should the opposition win.

The effectiveness of this game plan was initially somewhat minute, but it started to gain greater traction with the “war on women” counter-meme. Suddenly, the left was faced with the opportunity to move “women’s issues” front and center; and they did just that. Politicians, activists and talking heads immediately began to denounce the opposition as hostile to women’s rights.

What’s funny about this new declaration of war is that it is built upon the exact same issue as the one that preceded it. Democrats are claiming that opposition to the contraception mandate is not driven by a belief in religious freedom, but rather hostility toward women’s rights. They have effectively flipped the script on Republicans and are running an all-out campaign painting anyone who disagrees with them as “sexist.” What I find most outlandish is the claim that Republicans are somehow trying to “roll back” women’s rights, yet the contraception mandate hasn’t even gone into effect. If the mandate were to be eliminated, absolutely nothing would change from how it is today.

Although this attack is somewhat ridiculous, it is proving to be an effective one. Republicans were quickly pulled from the “war on religion” arena and thrust into the frontlines of a new fight — and have been taking a beating. Democrats are conducting an all-out assault in the “war on women” and are reaping the spoils of the various battles along the way. Many were surprised when the White House came out of left field and stated that President Obama believes that women should be admitted to the Augusta National Golf Club. They shouldn’t have been. It’s just one of the many parts of an extremely well-organized effort to advance the narrative. In fact, it’s no coincidence the White House decided to host a “Women in the Economy” conference last Friday. Expect much more of this over the next several months. Why? Because it’s working. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll now puts Obama over Romney 57–38 among registered female voters, his largest margin to date.

The problem with Republicans is that they have no idea how to respond when faced with such an attack. When Democrats get hit, they immediately punch back twice as hard (as demonstrated above). However, when Republicans get socked, they spiral into disarray. Mitt Romney had the perfect opportunity to expose this phony war for what it is when asked about his thoughts on Augusta, but he simply agreed with the president because he didn’t want to appear hostile toward women. What’s more, he’s attempting to flip the script back on the Obama administration by claiming that the president is waging his own “war on women” through job losses in the economy. In an effort to push this narrative further, he recently appeared at a female-owned printing company in Connecticut and surrounded himself with women workers as part of a PR stunt.

The invocation of Reagan has long been worn out and overplayed, but I feel it appropriate in this instance. Reagan was a Godsend for Republicans because he was able to deconstruct these arguments and explain his positions in a concise and clear manner to the American people. If faced with the “war on women” mantra today, he would have been easily able to pick it apart, explain the irrationality behind it and move on to the next issue. Today, Republican leaders are instead attempting a pathetic counter response with the hope of painting Obama as the true wager of war against women. This is destined to fail, as Democrats have always been superior when it comes to riling up manufactured political outrage via polished organization and a complicit media. If the right tries to play this game, they will lose every time.

And thus it appears as if the two parties have presented us with the following false dichotomy: a choice between the “war on women” and the “war on religion.” You needn’t look any further to understand why people are so put off by the political process. Politicians are banking on the fact that most people won’t take the time to research the specifics of the mandate as outlined in the Federal Register (it’s all of five pages long and well worth the read). Therefore, they can control the terms of the debate and tailor their arguments toward the public’s emotions. Personally, I disagree with the mandate simply because I don’t believe the federal government should be in the business of dictating insurance policies. I also believe it to be outside the federal government’s jurisdiction, and therefore a legitimate constitutional argument can and should be raised. That being said, we owe it to ourselves to debate the law on its merits and the media owes it to the American public to explain it in an objective manner. Instead, we’re stuck with RNC and DNC talking heads who depress our political discourse to the lowest common denominator. By simply dumbing down the argument to the “war on religion” vs. the “war on women,” the political class is conducting nothing more than a “war on reason.”

David Fontaine Mitchell is a commentator and author. His book, “Ascension Island and the Second World War,” was published in 2011.