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Eric Sapp

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Why Our Blunt Narrative Doesn't Win

Posted: 03/ 1/2012 4:35 pm

Democrats and progressives need to change the way we're talking about the recent birth control brouhaha. By making this about women and contraception -- instead of couples being able to decide when to start a family -- we're focusing on the short-term policy goals instead of long-term political narratives, limiting our audience appeal, and playing to people's fears instead of building more powerful narratives around core American archetypes. Ironically, our arguments also reinforce the very sexist stereotypes we purport to oppose. It's a losing strategy over the long term, and we need to adopt more powerful, inclusive, and positive ways to talk about our contraception and pro-family policies.

A number of Democrats and progressives have adopted the women vs. boss frame over the last few days to talk about the Blunt Amendment. For example, yesterday Stephanie Cutter said in reference to Romney's flip on Blunt that "Mitt Romney is taking important health decisions... out of the hands of women and [putting them] into the hands of their bosses." Sec. Sebelius said, "The Obama Administration believes that decisions about medical care should be made by a woman and her doctor, not a woman and her boss." Think Progress (which has an awesome Twitter feed, by the way) went a step further, saying Republicans want to put your boss in your bedroom. Gross, right? Who wants their boss in their bedroom or talking to them about birth control? Of course we should oppose a bill that allows that.

Yes, these arguments will help us defeat Blunt, but the point of Blunt isn't to deny women contraception coverage. I'll repeat that because it is important: Republicans aren't doing these bills because they want to keep women from using birth control. Now before you skip to the end and start leaving me angry comments, keep reading. Blunt never stood a chance of passing, and Republicans and Democrats know it. So the purpose of Blunt clearly wasn't to actually prevent women from having access to birth control, but to create a fight. They wanted a debate, not an outcome. They want a fight over religious freedom and government over-reach. And that is what we're giving them, with some abortion language thrown in for good measure. After all, what's the normal context for Democrats talking about a "woman and her doctor?"

We were always going to win on Blunt. The question is whether we'll win the broader arguments and in winning Blunt, create the strongest macro-narrative frameworks for the long-run.

So let's get back to our focus on women. Are men responsible for unwanted pregnancies? Should fathers take a role in raising children? If your answer is yes, then why are we talking about this as if it's just a woman's responsibility and a decision she makes alone? By making contraception only about women's health, we're telling voters contraception decisions are not about parents, not about men, and not about families. That greatly limits our political audience and sends the wrong message about gender roles in sex and parenting.

Furthermore, there are two ways to look at birth control. It can either be something that allows couples to decide when to start a family, or something that gives women control of their lives by being able to prevent pregnancy. In one frame, you have the happy young husband and wife wanting to make sure they are settled before starting a family. In the other, you have a woman who is having sex but doesn't want children. I'm not saying the latter option is bad (and both frames could be describing the same woman), but which is the one you'd use to sell some unrelated product on TV? Which is the story we want to tell and the characters we want to defend? If we want to win elections, it's the former more than the latter.

When voters think of our position, we want them to see Democrats as the Party fighting for families and parents. So we're better off talking about how Democrats want to ensure couples can decide when to start a family than fighting to protect women's ability to have sex without getting pregnant.

Another way to look at it. We can either go for an "eww" or "aww" reaction to contraception. Bosses in the bedroom: eww. Young married couple wanting more time together with their first child before having a second: aww.

People don't generally have happy feelings about sitting in the doctor's office. And I've never been, but I assume OBGYN visits aren't things women have warm, fuzzy feelings about either. But both men and women do have happy feelings about the idea of deciding when and how many kids to have as a family. We want to be associated with the emotions and archetypes in this IUD ad (note the father happily helping with the baby and mom being able to leave him with kid at end!). We want to be seen by voters as the defenders of that couple, but instead we're trying to scare people about invasions of privacy and making this only about women and doctor visits.

Focusing on families doesn't mean we're ignoring women. Again, let's look to multi-million dollar ad campaigns that businesses focus-group and test more fully than anything we ever do in politics. How do businesses target women and get them to relate to a brand or take the action? With all these same images I'm suggesting we use.

So let's not fight the fight the GOP wants. Instead, let's talk about what is really at stake with Blunt: the GOP is saying parents shouldn't be able to decide when and how many children to have. Republicans believe we can't have better healthcare and make our own parenting decisions and also have religious liberty. They are flat wrong, and if we'd started talking about it that way, the vast majority of Americans would see it and agree.