Mike Huckabee, and why Republicans have trouble talking to and about women

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R) had a challenge for Democrats on Thursday.

"If the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it," Huckabee said at the RNC winter meeting. "Let's take that discussion all across America."

As it turns out, Democrats are  quite happy to oblige.

Shortly after Huckabee's "libido" comments, Democrats distributed them far and wide, rehashing the so-called GOP "war on women" and accusing Huckabee of insensitivity. Some enterprising campaigns even sought to tie their Republican opponents to the former presidential candidate, hoping Huckabee's controversy would also play a bit part in their own races.

In the end, Huckabee's comments are likely to be soon forgotten, but they do reflect a broader problem the Republican Party has when it comes to women.

Basically, the party has a very difficult time talking about these issues without opening itself up to such attacks.

Let's explain:

Huckabee was not saying himself that women have uncontrollable libidos and need birth control; he was saying Democrats make women believe this so that they vote Democratic.

There are a few problems with his approach, though.

1) Huckabee's 54-word sentence -- which includes a 50-word dependent clause -- was initially so confusing that several reporters thought Huckabee was attributing the "libido" idea to himself. (Now, we're sure some Democrats think Huckabee was talking about himself, but do you really think he's that stupid?)

2) Even as the sentence reads today, it still could sound as if Huckabee thinks certain women need to "control their libido" -- though that doesn't seem to be his intention.

3) The contraception issue is, quite frankly, not the GOP's friend.

That last statement might surprise some folks, particularly on the right, who can rightly point out that some polls show a slight majority of the American people thinks religious institutions should be exempt from covering birth control.

But while polling on a federal contraception mandate varies -- and depends a lot on how you ask the question -- the enthusiasm is certainly on the pro-mandate side. That, and Democrats are much better at controlling the message on this issue.

A March 2012 Washington Post-ABC poll showed Americans favored mandating contraception coverage by a margin of 61-35. Those who felt strongly in favor of the mandate outnumbered those who strongly opposed it nearly two to one, 50-27.

The numbers were much closer when it asked specifically whether religious institutions should be exempted (the crux of the current debate). In that case, 49 percent thought it should be mandated, while 46 percent thought it should not. But, again, strong supporters trumped strong opponents -- by around eight or nine points.

In other words, the passion is clearly more on one side of this issue, and if Democrats can define this issue along the lines of the first polling question rather than the second -- the one bringing religious institutions into the mix -- they're clearly fighting a winning battle.

As it happens, Democrats have been quite successful at doing just that, just as they did Thursday with Huckabee. In fact, if you look at Huckabee's comments, he made no mention of religion and contraception at all.

None of this is to say that Huckabee committed a huge gaffe that will hurt Republicans significantly going forward. But, clearly, whatever point he was trying to make was lost thanks to a poor choice of words -- a cautionary tale to a party that has all too often found its members doing much the same thing (think "legitimate rape").

Huckabee is generally one of the GOP's most gifted messengers. If even he is falling into this kind of a rathole, that doesn't suggest great things ahead for his party.

Fixbits: 

Former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell (R) once rejected a plea deal that would have spared his wife.

The U.S. Attorney in New Jersey issued subpoenas to Republican Gov. Chris Christie's reelection campaign.

The Justice Department is reportedly investigating New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez's efforts on behalf of fugitive bankers from Ecuador.

Conservative author Dinesh D’Souza faces charges he violated campaign finance laws.

Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) outraised Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) during the fourth quarter of 2013.

Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.) cut ties with moderate groups including Third Way.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) urged moving toward decriminalizing marijuana.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) will deliver an alternate response to President Obama's State of the Union address.

Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Tex.) has gone missing.

Must-reads: 

"Republicans to tighten rules on primary calendar" -- Reid Wilson, GovBeat

"Denver competes with KC, Las Vegas, Phoenix for 2016 RNC bid" -- Allison Sherry, Denver Post

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