Dana Milbank
Opinion writer February 24, 2012

If the gender gap becomes a chasm that swallows Republicans this fall, it will be no fluke. It will, however, have something to do with Sandra Fluke.

She’s the Georgetown University law student who was blocked by chairman Darrell Issa from testifying about contraception before his House government-reform committee this month. The result was an embarrassment of a panel in which five men testified against an administration plan to expand birth control coverage.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

Now Democrats are turning Fluke into a feminist martyr. On Thursday, the student was surrounded by dozens of cameras as she sat before a pseudo-committee chaired by House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, a rump session designed entirely to exploit the Republicans’ mistake.

“Following your rejection by the Republicans from the panel,” Pelosi declared, “we’ve heard from over 300,000 people saying we want women’s voices to be heard.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) went an order of magnitude higher. “You certainly speak for millions,” he said.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.)revised that further. “I know you’re speaking for tens of millions of women,” she informed Fluke. “Can you think of any reason why [Issa] would be so adamant that your voice should not be heard?”

“Chairman Issa’s head,” the young woman replied, “is somewhere I don’t want to go.”

It is tempting to speculate that Issa’s head contains some regret that his hearing, which was supposed to be about an assault on religious freedom by President Obama, instead became a symbol of Republicans trying to take the pill away from women.

This is not a good position for Republicans. In a poll released Thursday by Quinnipiac University, voters by 82 percent to 12 percent said it is not wrong to use birth control.

Most Republicans say they have no interest in banning contraception and are focused on the narrower question of whether religious organizations should be forced to provide it. But judging from the reporters standing in the aisles to hear Fluke (the House Recording Studio’s refusal to broadcast the pseudo-hearing generated even more media attention), Republicans are losing the perception war.

“We almost ought to thank the chairman [Issa] for the, shall we say, lack of judgment that he had to arouse, to raise the awareness,” Pelosi said at the session, “because it’s been very hard over the years to convince people that the fight here has been about contraception.”

Actually, Pelosi might want to consider getting a bulk pack of thank-you cards. She should address some to Gov. Bob McDonnell and Republican legislators in Virginia who finally backed down from a much-ridiculed attempt to require women seeking an abortion to submit to an invasive “trans-vaginal ultrasound” probe.

Cards should also be sent to GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who believes that contraception hurts women, objects to the Supreme Court’s protection of birth control, complains about “radical feminists” encouraging women to work outside of the home and doubts the worth of having women in combat.

This all has the potential to widen the gender gap in Democrats’ favor. A Pew Research Center poll this month found that men, by 54 percent to 40 percent, favored the birth-control exemption for religious groups, while only 42 percent of women favored it, with 48 percent opposed.

Democrats are doing all they can to cement their advantage among women. They packed Thursday’s hearing with friendly spectators and displayed a poster-size photo of the men testifying at Issa’s hearing.

The 24-year-old Fluke spoke with poise as she described a friend at Georgetown who was taking birth-control pills to control ovarian cysts but had to stop because the cost was too high. “She had to have surgery to remove her entire ovary as a result,” Fluke said. “She’s been experiencing night sweats, weight gain and other symptoms of early menopause.”

Cummings invited her to comment on Issa’s description of her as an “energized” college student lacking qualifications.

“Well, I will confirm that I was energized,” Fluke said. As for her qualifications, “I’m an American woman who uses contraception. . . . That makes me qualified to talk to my elected officials about my health-care needs.”

It was just the spectacle the lawmakers had planned. “If we had gone to central casting to find a representative to speak for American women,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) told Fluke, “we could not have done better than you.” Moments later, the lawmakers joined the audience in the unusual act of standing to applaud a witness.

It was quite a performance. The question is why Republicans keep giving their opponents so many opportunities to put on a show.

danamilbank@washpost