Friday, February 24, 2012

Mitt Romney and the Birth Control Conspiracy Theory

Have you heard the one about the wild White House conspiracy with the press to trip up Republicans on birth control?

If you were watching the debate Wednesday night, you have, because Mitt Romney couldn’t wait to peddle it:
ROMNEY: John, what's happened -- and you recall back in the debate that we had George Stephanopoulos talking out about birth control, we wondered why in the world did contraception -- and it's like, why is he going there? Well, we found out when Barack Obama continued his attack on religious conscience.
It wasn’t a Romney original; conservative talk shows and blogs had been running with the idea for a while. Steve Benen did a good item on this yesterday, but I think it's worth digging up all the bones on this one.

The idea was, as one conservative blogger said:
There was no active controversy over contraception, it wasn’t in the news, and there were far more pressing political issues.
But then:
Well what do you know, about a month later the Obama administration proposes administrative rules under Obamacare which would require free contraception be provided even by religious institutions which oppose contraception on religious grounds. It’s almost as if Stephanopoulos got the memo first. Unless, of course, you believe in coincidences.
And that’s where Mitt Romney got his conspiracy theory talking point from.

So, was George Stephanopoulos secretly in cahoots with the White House? I have no idea about that, but it’s a great manufactured controversy, isn’t it?

Only thing is: “no active controversy”? Well, putting aside the thirty year war over whether there’s a right to privacy in the constitution, which is the perfectly ordinary but appropriate thing that Stephanopolous was asking about…why, yes, there are several active controversies surrounding contraception. First was the controversy that conservatives suddenly discovered, or pretended to discover, that all the fuss has been about this month. But anyone who was following ACA implementation knew all about that; for example, here’s an op-ed opposing the then-in-progress regulations from back in September.

Second, putting aside the particular issue of religion: Republicans happen to be campaigning on repealing ACA, which has as one of its potentially most popular provisions the requirement that insurance cover contraception. Of course, that’s the general provision that made the Catholic complaint relevant, but again: this is in fact a major issue in the campaign, and was made one by the Republican candidates themselves.

That’s not all! House Republicans and Republicans in various state legislatures spent last year attacking Planned Parenthood. “No active controversy”? That’s a pretty major active controversy. It is possible that some Republicans are oblivious to the fact that many people use Planned Parenthood for birth control, and in fact most women who use Planned Parenthood probably think of it primarily as a place to get birth control (yes, there are other health services there too, but you know, it is in the name of the organization). But just because they’re oblivious about it – if they are – doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

So: there have been at least three overlapping but separate controversies regarding contraception. Do they rate a debate mention? Certainly, ACA repeal does. Again, just because Republicans want to talk about "government takeovers" and, understandably, not the actual benefits to consumers that ACA will produce doesn't mean that questions about those benefits are somehow off limits.

Regardless; even if none of these things were going on, key Supreme Court doctrines are certainly legitimate fodder for presidential debates questions and always have been. Which is all that the original question was about. Republicans, in my view, would have had a plausible case to make that the way Stephanopoulos asked about the right to privacy and Griswold v. Connecticut, the case that established that right, was tilted against them. But the idea that the question and the general topic were somehow inexplicable in a presidential debate...well, that's just nonsense.

And for Mitt Romney to bring it up? I'm entirely convinced that far-right and far-left conspiracy theories are basically equivalent, but it's impossible to imagine a serious Democratic presidential candidate repeating nutty things that came across the email or showed up in the goofier liberal blogs. If anyone can think of an example, please let me know. Republican presidential candidates? It's practically the bulk of their rhetoric.


  1. Seems like the real controversy is that Republicans think they should have some say over the women, their sexuality, and their reproduction.

    I'm sickened that they think half the population ought to be political pawns in their game putting power over governing.

    But hey, what do I know? I've got girl parts.

  2. Nice post.

    The closest I can think of on the Dem side is Kucinich's psuedo-conspiratorial references about 9/11. But I doubt he qualifies as a "serious" candidate.

    I suppose you could interpret some of the anti-Bush stuff related to Iraq as borderline conspiracy, but that's not really much.

    And there's probably a clip out there somewhere with a dem candidate agreeing with the anti-vaccine anti-medical left, I would think. But I don't know of one.


  3. Actually I would expect competent political actors, whatever their party, to be continually pitching stories and press conference questions to journalists. And if the Republicans don't care for the questions posed by George Stephanopolis and John King at their events, they can always have Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity moderate them.

  4. Again, hardly in the same league, but during the 2004 campaign didn't Dean and maybe even once or twice Kerry raise the prospect of the return of the draft?

  5. If Obama could get something started simply by putting a bug in Stephanopolis's ear, I'd hope he go for something other than stirring up a merde-storm over contraception. Something like, "Hey George - ask them why we can't borrow money at negative interest rates to repair our crumbling infrastructure and put a bunch of people to work."

  6. Dr. Bernstein, your last sentence is really over the top, and simply demonstrates your fierce partisanship. Is there any mainstream media figure working for a purpordedly politically neutral media outlet (i.e., not FOX or MSNBC) with a background in Republican campaign management equivalent to the Democratic background (top Clinton campaign operative) of George Stephanopolous? Republican Presidential candidates have sound reasons to believe the George S. is less than neutral in battles between Democrats and Republicans.

    1. Sure. Diane Sawyer, who IIRC co-hosted that very same debate. Not 100% equivalent to George S., but reasonably close.

      But it's irrelevant. The GOP and their candidates are perfectly free to take their debates wherever they want, for one thing; for another, the point is that there's nothing in any way -- at all -- odd about asking a Griswold question in a 2012 Republican presidential debate. I'm open to the possibility that someone pitched the question to them, but, again, so what?

    2. I would say Roger Ailes trumps Diane Sawyer.

    3. Yes, but he excepted the partisan media, Which is right; no one should believe that Fox is trying to be neutral, but ABC certainly says they are, and IMO they are. Of course, "neutral" doesn't actually mean unbiased, but it should mean that they don't act as deliberate partisans.

  7. You forget to mention the "Personhood" State constitution amendments that had been on the Ballot in both CO and MS. Romney seemed to be trying to square the circle on the issue, both supporting the amendment (on "Huckabee") and supporting the existence of birth control (when taking questions from a crowd) and seemingly unaware that the one would impact the other. That's the context in which to place Stephanopoulos' question.

  8. I don't get this controversy at all, or the need to do all of the tap-dancing about active controversies. Read the transcript at the debate. Steph was asking the question in clear context of repeated statements of Santorum's, including some that had gotten a bit of attention the week before, regarding his belief that there was no right to privacy as established in Griswold v Conn and critical to Roe v Wade

    This article linked below - from a social conservative site, making a silly post-debate argument about Steph pressing the Rs harder than he had pressed Pelosi in an interview - includes the relevant portions of the transcript.

    Perry may have made similar comments at one point or another, but Santo was the particular point of inspiration.

  9. I actually believe Scott Brown sincerely feels tricked into supporting something he wishes he wasn't supporting.

    Of course this is pointing the finger at the wrong tricksters . . .

  10. I'm quite sure the reason Stephanopoulos brought up contraception -- actually, I think he brought up Griswold v. Connecticut -- is that in January 2012, Rick Santorum told ABC News' Jake Tapper that he disagreed with the Griswold v. Connecticut decision, wherein the Supremes decided a state did not have the right to limit married residents' access to birth control because people had a Constitutional "right to marital privacy." Santorum's position was circulating in the blogosphere. I was amazed Romney really did not seem to know what Stephanopoulos was talking about, because the left's horror over Santorum's position got a good airing. Right-leaning blogs repeated the story, too.

    Romney should have anticipated George's question. Apparently, Willard's crack team still hasn't told him about Santorum's radical stance, or else, gosh, he dissembled Wednesday night. Hard to believe.

  11. Have to say you guys are all right about bringing it back to Griswold, it reminds me a lot of the whole Bork fiasco, namely how Joe Biden (then head of the Senate Judiciary Committee) flanked Bork by pointing out that Bork argued (yes in legal briefs and such) that there was no difference between the state regulating contraception—and before Griswold it was illegal to use contraception in the state of Connecticut, even between married couples even under the advice of a doctor—and regulating pollution from factories. I mean in 2012 this type of ideology just seems bizarre but it is still with us. And Georgie S has every right to ask about it, just like every woman, or man, has a right to ask about what sort of bizarre stuff the Governor of their commonwealth of Virginia wants to force into their lives.

  12. If you haven't already, I strongly recommend you hop over to Jacobson's site to watch the clip. You'll see that Stephanopolous spent 3 1/2 minutes of a 6-candidate debate grilling Mitt Romney on the specific question of whether states have the right to ban contraception.

    In reading the open to this thread, you might have had the impression that Romney was complaining about what was more or less the normal course of debate affairs; where reproductive rights were say agenda item 6 out of 10, and Romney didn't like it. That's not how it went down, though. Go to Jacobson's site and see for yourself.

    Even stranger, Romney says, "I would totally oppose any and all efforts to ban contraception" 0:55. Somehow, in a 90-minute, 6-person primary debate, Stephanopolous deemed it necessary to press ostensible-candidate Romney for almost 3 of those minutes, to 'reaffirm' his answer to a bizarrely inappropriate, highly-specific question, that - oh by the way - the WH was on the verge of (controversially) doing much the same thing Romney incredulously advocated - and understandably wanted to move on from.

    Look. Here's what we all know about conspiracy theories: the easiest way to debunk them is to roll your eyes and point and laugh, which is why even though classic literature is rife with conspiracies, in modern parlance they have all but ceased to exist, crushed under the weight of not appearing to be wearing the tinfoil hat.

    So maybe here's a good challenge: for those of you who have followed the debate series, rewatch the Stephanopolous clip, and try to remember ANY moment, at ANY point in ANY of the debates, where one candidate was pressed so incongruously on ANY question. My guess is there isn't one, or if I missed it, it was on some obviously germane topic, not some extremely particular, fringe observation that - hm - the WH would soon be needing cover on.

    If it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck...

    1. Ridiculous. Romney started off argumentative and defensive, then preferred to act totally mystified by a question that anyone who wishes to be taken seriously on these matters should be able and happy to discuss. Santorum and Paul didn't seem to have his difficulties (though they have other difficulties).

      The result wasn't a grilling. It was Romney acting like a fool, and attacking Stephanopolous, who was forced either to defend the validity of his question or let Romney get away with ducking it - while leaving the attack unanswered.

      Steph attempted to create discussion by exploring an issue that exposed or might expose differences between the candidates. If there aren't many examples from other debates of that, and of reporter/moderators holding the candidates accountable for their answers, that's a criticism of the debates and of all participants.

    2. Let's try this somewhat differently. Here's the sequence of events:

      1) Sometime last summer, as part of the ACA, the Obama Administration announces its intention to force private institutions to provide free contraceptive services. They put this out for the six-month comment window.

      2) A few months later, as linked in the open to this thread, a Catholic wrote an oped in the WaPo saying "He** no we won't go", saying that his organization took umbrage at being forced to participate in morally objectionable acts by a typically intrusive liberal administration; you live your life how you wish, he wrote, but don't tell us how to live ours.

      3) Taking into account such feedback, the Obama Administration decided to proceed regardless, leaning on the "free-ness" of the contraceptive services for their popularity (which, as an aside, is one of the reasons opponents are terrified of the ACA mandate: its the place where the cost burden of all sorts of 'free' things causes some of the forecasted savings of the ACA to go up in smoke).

      4. On January 7, two weeks before the Obamas were to announce their intention to play the Big Liberal Administration card and disregard the conscientious objections of the Catholic Church, ostensible Republican nominee Mitt Romney was asked for almost 4 minutes, to confirm for the national tv cameras, that his position is no local entity has the right to ban contraception against Federal government wishes.

      If the debate lasts 90 minutes, and say roughly 2/3 of that time is actual candidate engagement of the matters at hand, this means in a 10-topic, 6-person debate, you'd expect about an average of 1 minute per topic per candidate.

      This extremely narrow topic of Mitt Romney's view on whether local entities have the right to contravene the Fed Govt's policy on contraception took up about 400% of the time you'd expect, with most of that period in Stephanopolous saying "Let me be clear, what you said was..." - in other words, Romney answered it in the normal minute, while Stephanopolous spent the other ~three pushing him to confirm his reply.

      If I understand your argument, CK, the reason this doesn't smell funny is because the topic is of some national interest. True. But then, so is the political future of Uz-beki-beki-beki-stan. If Stephanopolous had asked Cain (if he had survived to this debate) such a question, and Cain said "I think we should work with Prime Minister Mirzi-yo-yo-yo-yo-yev", and Stephanopolous asked him to repeat that for three minutes, two weeks before the actual sitting US government began a controversial policy of supporting just such regime change in Uz-Beki-Beki-Beki-Stan, that wouldn't strike you as odd?

      Begs the question the tinfoil hat crowd always asks in private: if this doesn't smell funny, what does?

    3. To finish on a slightly lighter note, that Stephanopolous/Romney exchange, linked at Jacobson's place, has a bit of that Would you have ordered that code red?!?"feel to it, no?

      But then, I guess Lt. Kaffee had no agenda in that famous scene, either...

    4. "If I understand your argument, CK, the reason this doesn't smell funny is because the topic is of some national interest."

      No - the topic is a) a worthy topic of political discussion at any time, b) especially valid for a party putting forth the likes of Paul, Santorum, Perry, Bachmann, making a home for "Tenthers," giving a veto to pro-life, and on and on, c) even more especially valid SINCE IT HAD BEEN RAISED BY THE CANDIDATES repeatedly and contemporaneously.

      In effect, the right is complaining that reporters, moderators, and their own candidates are choosing to focus on something that the right thinks is important, that in fact virtually encapsulates its (paradoxical, self-contradictory, shizophrenically utopian) pseudo-quasi-libertarian worldview ca. 2012.

      The right seems to think that the whole country quietly support its views on reproductive rights in relation to the state, but will be turned off by an overt focus on its views on reproductive rights in relation to the state. So, we're going to just kind of quietly overturn Roe v Wade and Griswold, and repeal "Obamacare," and introduce a conscience exception for contraception but not for the vast number of other issues that other people might have conscience problems with (because it would make all functions of government impossible), but we're going to do it quietly, with a maximum of 3 minutes of public debate? That, and get the government out of Medicare!

      I doubt it.

    5. Yeah, a couple of things. The main one is that a Griswold/Roe question is utterly, totally, unremarkable. As I said, I can understand a complaint that GS's version of the Griswold/Roe question was slanted, but that's a very different complaint than the one we're hearing.

      Second, again, it's not as if the specific issue of birth control came out of nowhere. The ACA related stuff has been in the news all year (I pulled out one example, but those involved have been very aware of this all year), as has the Planned Parenthood stuff.

      Again, the way GS framed the question, or the way he pressed follow ups -- sure, that's a potentially legit complaint. But that it was a topic raised just isn't.

    6. Thanks for the responses. I agree that Roe/Griswold is always fair game in any political debate. I also walk back the Cain comparison; broadly speaking, contraception issues are more germane than the future of Uzbekistan. I also walk back the claim that the universal contraception decision certainly represented "typical liberal overreach" from Team Obama (though it was awfully fun to write!)

      CK sort of made this point in his last, but the Catholic opposition to contraception is not an entirely harmless position. There are many areas of the country - including mine, a top-30 MSA - where accessing such care is pretty onerous if the Catholic hospitals aren't providing it. So while this may be typical liberal overreach, the counterargument about access is also valid (especially since even the overwhelming majority of Catholics don't follow the church's doctrine on contraception).

      Concessions made, I don't think they obscure the basic point: on the eve of a decision from Team Obama that, right wrong or indifferent, was bound to alienate an important constituency in an election year, Stephanopolous got Romney to advocate more or less the same sort of principle in a debate (i.e. that the Fed Govt has the right to dictate contraception policy locally)...then had him say it again. And again. And again.

      I did the Few Good Men thing my last post, but that's not the perfect bit. Its too bad the right is never intentionally funny, because that debate clip is perfect for parody. Starting at about the 1:00 mark, Stephanopolous would have reacted to Romney by saying "ok, so you oppose all efforts to ban contraception - at the state level. Can you repeat that, only with 'local', instead of 'state'"? Etc. etc. etc. Comedy gold.

  13. "I'm entirely convinced that far-right and far-left conspiracy theories are basically equivalent, but it's impossible to imagine a serious Democratic presidential candidate repeating nutty things that came across the email or showed up in the goofier liberal blogs."

    That strikes me as self-refuting. If the conspiracy theories are equivalent, then Democrats would campaign on them just as much as Republicans. But they aren't equivalent. Far-left conspiracies, as you correctly mention, don't get brought up by serious candidates in Democratic Presidential primaries. Care to revise and extend your descent into High Broderism (both sides do it)?

    1. My fault if I wasn't clear. That the theories exist, and the general content of the theories, strikes me as roughly equivalent. Both left and right fringes generate implausible conspiracy theories. The place of the theories within the two parties are not equivalent at all -- the left-generated ones these days stay on the fringes, while the right-generated ones migrate into "mainstream" pols' mouths.

  14. We only have to look to American history to see how this will play out - remember Prohibition. Those who had access to alcohol never stopped using it. This much ado about nothing will only create a black market and more underground economy. "I know someone who knows someone who can get you birth control pills."

  15. Okay, just so I understand, this is supposed to be a conspiracy because the Democrats, via Stephanopoulos, tricked Romney into stating his position on an issue? Is that what the fuss is about?

    1. Scott, I'm sort of glad you raised this objection, because I think it sort of points to why conspiracies get such a bad name: we discuss them in the context of vast, nefarious plots; where folks like Romney are "tricked" into giving the Obama Administration cover - the reality is likely that when they occur, they're quite banal.

      In this particular case, imo its entirely believable that Stephanopolous, in his normal course of daily/weekly communications, gets the update from various Obama insiders about what the administration is facing in the near future. In the runup to that Jan 7 debate, there are any number of very simple avenues where Stephanopolous could have been tipped off that Team Obama - for whatever reason, justified or otherwise - was going to invite the wrath of the Catholic hierarchy with its decision on contraception. You wouldn't have needed some evil, scifi-plot-worthy/complex scheme for Stephanopolous to understand that Romney, on the record, essentially endorsing the administration position would be fairly helpful to the cause.

      And that's enough to get the clip over on Jacobson's site. Its possible that Oliver Stone's fantastical JFK, with its myriad interfaces between vast mysterious mutually-hostile organizations, has done a disservice to conspiracies: usually they're pretty simple.

      In fact, in this case, they reflect about what any of us would have done if we were loyal servants of Obama. Or Stephanopolous, assuming (credibly) that he remains loyal to the left-wing cause.

    2. The only way what you are describing would be even remotely objectionable is if Stephanopoulos refused to entertain pitches from Republicans. Obviously all of this goes on behind the scenes, so proof is difficult either way. But it's a safe bet that something like what Romney alleges goes on all the time, from both sides. Romney's complaint would be much, much stronger if he were willing to categorically deny that neither he nor anyone on his behalf ever suggests stories or questions to journalists.

    3. But it's a safe bet that something like what Romney alleges goes on all the time, from both sides

      I think this is another good point, kth. In fact, in this simple hypothetical conspiracy, there are two players, 1) the Obama tipster and 2) Stephanopolous. The Obama tipster is almost certainly 100% beyond reproach, since, as kth says, this is the sort of thing partisan organizations do all the time.

      Which leaves Stephanopolous. Everything I've said in this thread sort of besmirches his reputation, which is unfair since I've no reason to believe he'd let himself be used as a pass-through for such things in a debate. But then, I've no good reason to think he's above that sort of thing, and I've every reason to think that some random, generic person, similarly situated as Stephanopolous, would indeed act as such a conduit.

      Is Stephanopolous, in particular, above that sort of thing? He might be. Does anyone know him well enough to say for sure?

    4. But a smart tipster wouldn't say, "Hey George, we're about to drop a bombshell wrt reproductive freedom, and it would really help us out if you pinned down Mitt Romney on the issue". Because Steph would probably get his back up, and not go along with it.

      More likely, the tipster would lay out the case, as has been amply done in the preceding question, why that question would be a good one. Needless to say, there would be nothing at all improper about heeding such a suggestion (even if the tipster's motives for suggesting it were hostile or concealed).

    5. Took me a while to get here, but while I also agree with kth's last point, its nevertheless true that - if you were Romney - you'd play up Stephanopolous' deep ties to the Clinton WH as evidence that this is not just a case of normal inside baseball for that journo.

      It may be, for the reasons that kth says. Indeed, Stephanopolous may be willing to drive the question entirely on his own, knowing this controversy was coming, for his own benefit he may have wished to get his face in front of the 'why-the-Republican-nominee-can't-really-say-anything-back' part of this story, assuming no one would raise suspicion.

      But even if there was nothing unusual in Stephanopolous working these channels, Romney is not remotely crazy in calling out the specific conflict-of-interest in the age-old, universal activity of journalists using inside knowledge to get in the middle of a coming story.

      Romney would have been crazy not to!


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