Mitt Missed Chance to Rail Against Rush: Margaret Carlson

March 6 (Bloomberg) -- Blame Rush Limbaugh if you want -- and I will, later, at the risk of being “Fluked” -- for the uproar over contraception. But the real culprit is the leadership of the Republican Party, which snatched defeat (the Blunt amendment, which would have let any boss decide what insurance coverage suits his conscience) from the jaws of victory (the president’s compromise with Catholic bishops over such coverage).

You have to wonder if the party that has been obsessed with lady parts for the better part of a month can bring enough women and independents home in November to beat President Barack Obama. Almost 70 percent of those surveyed in the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll -- taken Feb. 29 to March 5, when there were no debates except the one over contraception -- called themselves “unenthusiastic,” “discouraged” and “disappointed” by the Republicans. Republican pollster Bill McInturff calls the last month “corrosive.”

Mitt Romney has a worse overall favorable to unfavorable score at this stage -- 28 percent to 39 percent -- than any presidential nominee in recent history (the corresponding figures among independents -- 22 percent to 38 percent -- are even worse). Romney, who had muffed his response on the Blunt amendment -- he was against it before he quickly was for it -- had the perfect opportunity to reverse the downward movement by repudiating a piece of vitriol from Limbaugh.

Salacious Speculation

To review: Limbaugh had called Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke, who testified before Congress last month about the need for health insurance to cover contraception, a “slut” for having so much sex “it’s amazing she can even walk.” He then salaciously speculated about watching videos of the sex she would be enjoying while using contraception.

What a gimme. Limbaugh himself apologized -- in a half-hearted way -- when advertisers began to flee. Even Rick Santorum, who considers contraception the devil’s work, distanced himself from Limbaugh, calling him “absurd,” although softening it by labeling him as a mere “entertainer.” Romney, whose spine has been rendered limp as cooked spaghetti as he begs for approval from the base, could muster only a weak objection to Limbaugh, whimpering that it was “not the language I would have used.”

So there’s a synonym for slut or voyeurism that would have made the underlying sentiment suitable?

Romney’s feeble reaction put him at odds with the president of the United States (who phoned Fluke to say her parents would be proud of her); the president of Georgetown (who called the reaction to a model student “misogynistic, vitriolic, and a misrepresentation” of her position); and St. Augustine (who, as quoted by Georgetown’s president, favors civil discourse that seeks the truth “lovingly and tranquilly” without the “bold presumption that it is already discovered and possessed”).

This missed opportunity shows that not only has Romney’s spine gone wavy, but his judgment is skewed. Any politician worth his salt could see that this fight was no longer a fair one. What was once a battle between the Catholic bishops (with their allies in Congress) and Democrats was now between a powerful Republican Party player and someone’s daughter. This was asymmetric warfare.

Just as Don Imus couldn’t see that he had crossed a line when he stole a moment of triumph from the Rutgers women’s basketball team in 2007 by calling them “nappy-headed hos,” Limbaugh, with his huge show and massive celebrity, thought he could bully anyone personally and with impunity -- and his devoted dittoheads would applaud him for it. Any point he had to make was lost in his sputtering hate. Because he didn’t know Fluke, it felt like she was standing in for all women.

A Weak Apology

On his Monday show, Limbaugh elaborated on his weak Saturday apology by blaming liberals for his ill-chosen analogies. He regretted that he had “descended to their level,” while his defenders dredged up liberal criticism of another woman, Sarah Palin, during the 2008 campaign. But there’s one big difference: Palin was a grown-up candidate who had thrown herself into presidential politics. She had a national platform to answer her critics (and now has a well-paid contract with Fox News to do so).

You can bet that Limbaugh is one employer who will have “moral objections” to covering one particular prescription drug for his female employees. You want Limbaugh deciding that Cialis is covered (after all, it’s a prescription drug) and Ortho Micronor isn’t (even though it is also a prescription drug)? If this mania over covering contraception is drawn as a fight between your boss’s conscience and the mandate in the Affordable Care Act, then that’s bad news for the Republican nominee. In fact, I’ll bet Romney $10,000 that women go with the president.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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