02/13/2012 09:28 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2012

Balloon Boy Politics: The Media's Embrace of Birth Contracalypse 2012

Did you hear the news? Apparently the 2012 election isn't going to be about the economy after all. Instead, in the words of an AP headline, "Social Issues Retake U.S. Politics, 2012 Elections." NBC's First Read confirmed the meme: "You know the economy must be improving when cultural and social issues come roaring back into the national spotlight." And a Business Insider headline informs us that we can "Forget Jobs: The 2012 Election Is About The Culture War."

The catalyst for this reorientation of the election was the rule announced by the Obama administration that employers must provide free coverage in their health insurance plans for contraception. The rule was later amended so that the insurer, not the employer, would pay for the coverage.

This, we're told by NPR, provoked a "firestorm" across the political landscape, as pundits across the ideological spectrum gravely warned the White House of pending disaster if it continued to pursue such a divisive, controversial, and incendiary path. President Obama's entire reelection effort was now in jeopardy -- if not already hopelessly lost -- due to Birth Contracalypse 2012.

To which I say, borrowing from Seth Myers and Amy Poehler: Really?!

This supposed "culture war" has captured the fevered imagination of the press corps -- though not the electorate. That the media want to change the subject is not that surprising. They love narrative changes, and economic issues are harder -- though not that hard -- to present in a compelling way.

But birth control? In 2012? Seriously? This isn't abortion, it's birth control -- an issue that for the vast majority of Americans hasn't been controversial for decades.

Of course, it's probably not a coincidence that this new culture war, or, more accurately, this new culture war trial balloon, was floated just after the January jobs numbers showed unemployment dropping from 8.5 percent to 8.3 percent. This was greeted by the media as incredibly good news, even though part of the drop was due to the large numbers of people giving up looking for work. And even though unemployment among young people is 23.2 percent, unemployment among African Americans is 13.6 percent, and the number of long-term unemployed -- those jobless for over six months, who account for 42.9 percent of the unemployed -- barely budged, at 5.5 million. Not to mention the 4 million homeowners who have been foreclosed on, and the ongoing housing crisis, despite the too-late and too-little mortgage settlement just announced. Behind those numbers are millions and millions of Americans who are likely not very fired up about the remaining seven months of the election being dominated by a national conversation about birth control.

According to Gallup, when asked what the most important problem facing the U.S. was, economic issues were cited by 71 percent of respondents. Culture war issues totaled just 5 percent. So much for the new culture war overtaking the economy.

These results show that the president is still quite vulnerable on the economy. Even if the Republicans lack any real economic solutions beyond claiming that the president is a European socialist and pointing out that Staples has a lot of employees.

Instead, we have Mitt Romney claiming that Obama is waging an "assault on religion," Newt Gingrich claiming the White House had "declared war on the Catholic Church," and Rick Santorum claiming the administration was "trying to shutter faith" and "crushing it." Oddly enough, at this past weekend's CPAC convention, it was Sarah Palin who highlighted the "8.5-percent unemployment and 13 million Americans who can't find work," concluding that "it's not a failure of the American people, it is not a failure of America itself -- it is the failure of our leadership." I may not agree with Sarah Palin about a lot, but I agree with her about where our focus should be -- not on a supposed war on the Catholic Church.

But when these bogus claims were made, instead of challenging them, the media just went along. "All of a sudden," according to the AP, "abortion, contraception and gay marriage are at the center of American political discourse, with the struggling -- though improving -- economy pushed to the background." In fairness to the AP, the same piece did note that "the economy still tops the list of voters' concerns and probably will still shape this presidential election," but also concluded that, "for now, at least, the culture wars of the 1990s are back."

In fact, according to the Public Religion Research Institute, 58 percent of Catholics agree with the statement: "All employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception and birth control at no cost." The only group surveyed that disagreed was white evangelicals, who never were going to vote for Obama in large numbers anyway. And according to a poll done by Lake Research, 84 percent of Americans regard family planning services like birth control to be a basic part of health care -- not a left-right political issue.

The biggest number giving lie to the idea that this will be a decisive political issue? Ninety-eight. That is the percentage of sexually active Catholic women who say they have used birth control, according to a Guttmacher Institute study released in April 2011.

What's more, some version of this not-so-new rule has been in effect for years in 28 states, only eight of which offer any exemptions for religious hospitals. And as Michelle Goldberg wrote in the Daily Beast, Mitt Romney didn't seem to have a problem with the rule in Massachusetts while he was governor. But now, in an op-ed in the Washington Examiner, he proclaims "such rules don't belong in the America that I believe in." And as Goldberg notes, the nation's fifth largest health care system, Dignity Health (formerly Catholic Healthcare West), provides contraceptive coverage, as do the Catholic universities Georgetown, Fordham, and DePaul.

Indeed, trying to impose the mirror opposite of the rule would present far more problems, because, as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled in 2000, when an employer provides prescription coverage that doesn't include contraceptives, it's treating men and women unequally, a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That 2000 ruling, by the way, was never challenged by the Bush administration in the eight years it had the chance to do so.

To the Catholic bishops, however, all of a sudden this is an "unprecedented threat to religious freedom." But while the bishops have been busy trying to politicize what is actually a nearly universally supported public health issue, the media have been asleep at the wheel. How much more interesting it would have been if, instead of breathlessly going along with the phony culture war narrative, reporters had asked the bishops what it means for a church when 98 percent of its adherents routinely flout a rule it considers so fundamental.

In fact, the real issue of the 2012 election is one that is at the heart of the Catholic religion. "I may not be as theologically sophisticated as American bishops," writes Nicholas Kristof, "but I had thought that Jesus talked more about helping the poor than about banning contraceptives."

I have no doubt that the plight of the poor and America's struggling middle class will be much more on the minds of voters in November than birth control. And I hope that the media will quickly tire of this latest Balloon Boy-esque distraction. If not, this new "culture war" will be a big loser both for the GOP and for the media.

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