November 26, 2013
US Supreme Court (AFP photo/Karen Bleier)
US Supreme Court (AFP photo/Karen Bleier)

Big news: The Supreme Court will hear a challenge to Obamacare that centers on the Constitutionality of its contraception mandate — reigniting a debate over women’s health and “religious liberty” that played a major role in the 2012 elections. Oral arguments will likely come in March.

However this turns out, at a moment when the health law is sinking in polls, and its prognosis remains in doubt, this has the potential to revive an argument about health care that even Republicans widely admit played heavily in the Dems’ favor — in both the 2012 presidential and Senate races — the last time it was in the news.

The contraception debate flared up in the spring of 2012, at around the time Rush Limbaugh denounced Sandra Fluke as a “slut and a “prostitute.” Democratic operatives subsequently seized on some comments from GOP Senate candidates (see Akin, Todd) to keep up a drumbeat about the GOP as hidebound and captive to a base that is unwilling to evolve on cultural and women’s health issues.

The RNC’s own autopsy into what went wrong in 2012 explicitly noted that the GOP needs to avoid being seen as the party of “stuffy old men.” Dems will do all they can to ensure that a SCOTUS debate over contraception revives the focus on what it means to elect a party that appoints stuffy old Republican judges.

Indeed, the RNC autopsy called on the party to broaden the party’s appeal to Latinos (through an embrace of immigration reform), young voters (by showing sensitivity on gay rights) and women. But immigration reform looks dead in this Congress, and House Republicans refuse to move forward with a measure to end gay workplace discrimination. The Republican Party is running out of ways to evolve, and a revived debate about contraception brings up an issue where the party is still very much ministering to a key chunk of the base. House Republicans have tried to add measures to spending levels that would limit Obamacare contraception coverage, and at one point Paul Ryan told GOP colleagues that the debt limit deadline should be used as leverage against the same.

In one sense, this could also play in Republicans’ favor. If midterm elections are about base turnout, another extended debate about contraception provides Republicans with an easy way to fire up social conservatives in the middle of 2014.

But Dems will seize on it to further tar Republicans among key swing constituencies. White House adviser David Plouffe tweeted that the SCOTUS decision to take up the case would be a “nightmare” for Republicans, adding that 2016 GOP candidates’ handling of it would be closely watched by women in key swing areas such as northern Virginia. Dem Terry McAuliffe won in Virginia by building up a big gender gap, relentlessly tarring Republican Ken Cuccinelli as reactionary on women’s issues.

“This could be very helpful with younger and middle aged women — particularly many who may have been disenchanted with the rollout and who are having an impact on polling numbers,” a Democratic leadership aide tells me. “The idea that a boss calls the shots on a woman’s ability to get free birth control is really powerful. This is the kind of issue that could help change the ACA debate by reminding women in particular that at its core it’s all about access and affordability.”

A Bloomberg poll last March found that more than six in 10 Americans, and nearly 70 percent of women, rejected the GOP’s rationale for opposing the contraception mandate, seeing it as a matter of women’s health, and not religious liberty, with more than three quarters saying the topic shouldn’t even be part of the debate — suggesting that the middle of the country soundly rejects the GOP’s framing of the issue. And so, Dems will use this news to try to shift the argument over Obamacare on to cultural and health care turf that has already proven favorable to them.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.