WASHINGTON -- Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the current dust-up between Republicans and Democrats on the issue of contraception is its staying power in the political conversation. An election season that seemed firmly tied to the economy has been all but consumed by a slice of the culture wars for several weeks. And with both sides unwilling to let the matter rest, it could be for several more.
Few Democratic and Republican strategists think many voters will have birth control on their minds when they cast their ballots. Many who were interviewed predicted that the topic would return to the back burner soon enough. But either out of political cynicism or legitimate policy concern, each side has been keenly invested in keeping the contraception war going for the time being.
"I don’t think this will be a defining debate," said Tad Devine, a longtime Democratic operative who has worked on several presidential campaigns. "I think there is an obsession with stuff like this. I think there is always the press, the media, whoever it is, when there is good conflict there is great coverage. And this was a classic conflict between powerful interests on opposite sides and it was easy to understand."
According to a Pew Research Center study, the attention being paid to the contraception debate has been greater than the news coverage. Twenty-seven percent of respondents said that they had followed the debate over the Obama administration's rule requiring religious institutions, such as hospitals and universities, to cover birth control in their health insurance plans. Just 12 percent said this was the story they followed closest. Compare that to economic news, which 42 percent of respondents said they followed very closely and 18 percent said was the story they followed the closest.
With respect to the coverage itself, the two topics are getting near-equal billing. Pew found that 10 percent of news aired from Feb. 6 to Feb. 12 was devoted to the economy, while 8 percent was devoted to the birth control rule. The 2012 presidential campaign dominated both, with 22 percent of the coverage.
There are obvious explanations for the numbers. Congress is considering bills on the birth control rule, with votes pushed off at least till next week. Meanwhile, few topics are as easy to distill along political, religious, or moral lines as contraception. The conversations and sound bites are tailor-made for cable news (see: Friess, Foster).
The issue also touches squarely on some of the central themes of the Republican primary, whether it be the federal government's role in health care coverage or the contest over who has the best cultural conservative credentials.
"It's wrong to characterize this fight as over contraception. It's about freedoms and liberties," Santorum's top spokesman, Hogan Gidley, told The Huffington Post's Jon Ward. "This kind of mandate has been around for a while. All the president did was take it out of RomneyCare and put it at the national level. There is one thing that contraception issue does. It reminds people how intrusive and invasive Obama has been and at the same time how liberal Romney is, and how similar to Obama he is."
But the Obama administration's ruling, and the firestorm it produced, has also had a politically advantageous byproduct that few operatives like to discuss openly -- for fear of being branded a cynic.
For a short time period at least, each side has been granted a reprieve from weightier economic and budget debates, along with an open invitation to gin up energy and attention in their respective bases. The polls may be heavily slanted against Republicans on the issue. The topic may have tripped up several prominent Republican candidates in recent days, most notably Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) who seemingly lacked a grasp of the policy details during a local interview on Wednesday.
But it's equally telling that several Republican Senate candidates have raised money and run ads against their Democratic opponents based on the Obama administration's ruling. On Thursday, The New York Times reported that evangelical and conservative groups were inching towards campaign mode in efforts to beat back the contraception mandate.
Democrats, meanwhile, could hardly be most ecstatic. The party is returning to previous heights of popularity amid a "resurgence and re-engagement of unmarried women." And with GOP senators putting their chips behind a bill that would not only reverse the contraception mandate, but also allow institutions to drop nearly all health care coverage for procedures that they found morally objectionable, that trend will likely continue.
"This is a terrible vote for them," one top Senate Democratic aide said of the amendment proposed by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). "We are thrilled at the prospect about spending as much time as possible talking about this vote. They are caught between their base and a hard place."
All of which is not to dismiss the legitimate concerns of women's health care advocates over the prospects of insurance companies denying wide swaths of critical coverage. But, as one top GOP operative argued, "from a purely political standpoint," both parties "can gain."