December 14, 2012

Andrew Burton, Getty Images

The GOP’s worse-than-usual performance with women this year was in large part a product of disputes over women’s health — over contraception, over “transvaginal” ultrasounds in Virginia, and over “legitimate rape” in Missouri. These battles led to the GOP projecting an image of casual contempt for women and their needs.

Smart Republicans realize that they have to improve their standing with women if they want to make their way back to the White House, and they’re looking for ways to moderate their positions on issues important to them. The early efforts, however, are not encouraging.

Case in point: This Wall Street Journal op-ed from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, in which he endorses a proposal to make birth control over-the-counter:

As a conservative Republican, I believe that we have been stupid to let the Democrats demagogue the contraceptives issue and pretend, during debates about health-care insurance, that Republicans are somehow against birth control. It’s a disingenuous political argument they make.

As an unapologetic pro-life Republican, I also believe that every adult (18 years old and over) who wants contraception should be able to purchase it. But anyone who has a religious objection to contraception should not be forced by government health-care edicts to purchase it for others. And parents who believe, as I do, that their teenage children shouldn’t be involved with sex at all do not deserve ridicule.

This amounts to little more than a “rebranding.” Jindal is attempting to have his cake and eat it too. Yes, it would be great if birth control were available over-the-counter, but the problem for women — reflected in the battle over Obama’s contraception mandate, which is still opposed by conservatives as an assault on religious liberty — has been that women were seeing extra charges in order to attain needed services. For women, this was an issue of equity, not access, and one that Jindal doesn’t try to address.

This does not bode well for the prospects of a GOP rethink on women’s issues. The galling thing about Jindal’s op-ed is that he refuses to acknowledge the extent to which the Republican Party pushes very real restrictions on access to birth control. Almost every Republican presidential candidate — including the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney — came out against federal funding for Planned Parenthood , which spends the bulk of its funds on birth control and women’s health services. In Congress, House Republicans — like vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan — endorsed a host of laws that, if signed, would have outlawed abortion and most forms of contraception.

Yes, the “war on women” was a Democratic marketing term, but it is rooted in the GOP’s actual attempts — nationwide — to limit reproductive health access for women. And indeed, there’s little indication that the Republican Party has backed away from those policies, which is why Jindal’s op-ed rings hollow. As long as Republicans hew to their restrictionist stance on the full spectrum of reproductive rights, they will have problems with women voters. Small concessions, like over-the-counter birth control, aren’t nearly enough.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.