Opinion writer

It must have been at least a week since we’ve had a major campaign “gaffe” (really, who can keep track?), so into that breach Jeb Bush bravely stumbled yesterday, seeming to dismiss the notion of spending too much on women’s health care, when he said “I’m not sure we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues.” Naturally, Hillary Clinton was all over him, guaranteeing that there would be many stories written about it.

As regular readers know, I take a broadly anti-gaffe position. The assumption of gaffe coverage, that a single extemporaneous remark reveals something fundamental and true that the candidate who uttered it was trying to hide until it slipped out, is ridiculous. If a candidate says something and then later explains that it wasn’t what he meant — as Bush has done — he ought to be forgiven, since all of us say things the wrong way all the time.

But there may still be something we can learn from any particular gaffe — in this case, about the dynamics of controversy and the way presidential candidates can get swept by their party’s currents to places they might or might not want to go.

Let’s start by putting Bush’s statement in context. In an appearance before the Southern Baptist Convention, Bush was asked whether, when it comes time to fund the government with a continuing resolution, Congress should “say, ‘Not one more red cent to Planned Parenthood’?” Here’s his response:

“We should, and the next president should defund Planned Parenthood. I have the benefit of having been governor, and we did defund Planned Parenthood when I was governor. We tried to create a culture of life across the board. The argument against this is, ‘Well, women’s health issues are going to be — you’re attacking, it’s a war on women, and you’re attacking women’s health issues.’ You could take dollar for dollar — although I’m not sure we need a half a billion dollars for women’s health issues — but if you took dollar for dollar, there are many extraordinarily fine organizations, community health organizations that exist, federally sponsored community health organizations to provide quality care for women on a wide variety of health issues. But abortion should not be funded by the government, any government in my mind.”

I shouldn’t have to point this out, but I guess I do: abortion is not funded by the government, by law. Saying “abortion should not be funded by the government” as an argument for forbidding women to get health services from Planned Parenthood is like saying that because some supermarkets sell beer, food stamps shouldn’t be able to to be used at supermarkets, even though food stamps can’t be used to buy beer. I promise you that Jeb Bush knows this perfectly well.

I went over this yesterday, but briefly: Most of the federal money Planned Parenthood gets is in the form of Medicaid reimbursements for health services, things like gynecological exams, cancer screening, the provision of contraception, and so on. So “defunding” the organization means telling women that they can’t go to Planned Parenthood clinics, but have to go somewhere else. Whether Congress ought to be picking and choosing the health care providers women can use based on politics is at the heart of this issue.

Now on the dollar amounts involved: For the record, between Medicare, Medicaid, the VA, and other programs, the federal government spends well over a trillion dollars a year on health care, so it’s a little puzzling that Bush would find half a billion dollars for women’s health, or a fraction of a fraction of a percent of that total, to be some kind of extravagant amount. But maybe he was just thinking it’s a lot for one health care provider. Maybe he thinks Planned Parenthood is a smaller operation than it actually is. Maybe he has bought the Republican propaganda that Planned Parenthood is an abortion operation that does a few other things on the side, when the truth is that abortion services make up only three percent of their activities.

Whatever the case, this much is clear: Bush is now aboard the “defund Planned Parenthood” train in a serious way. This isn’t a new position for him, but he probably wasn’t planning on making a big deal out of it before some anti-choice activists released secretly recorded videos of Planned Parenthood officials discussing the transfer of fetal tissue for research. Once that ball got rolling, talk among conservatives quickly turned to whether Republicans would actually shut down the government to defund the group. That’s forcing the presidential candidates to take a loud, emphatic position to show primary voters that they’re good conservatives. Bushs comments also seemed to endorse shutting down the government over this issue, but that’s not quite clear, so we’ll have to wait for him to get asked that question more specifically — which he probably will before long.

To be clear, I’m not saying Bush was forced by events to take a position he didn’t want to. He has a long and strong record of opposition to women’s reproductive rights in general and to Planned Parenthood in particular. But it does show that the campaign agenda isn’t in the candidates’ hands, and I’m sure there’s someone working for him who suspects that this could be a problem if he becomes the Republican nominee. After all, in 2012 President Obama hammered Mitt Romney (see this ad, for instance) for taking exactly this position on defunding Planned Parenthood, and ended up beating Romney among women by 11 points.

Bush’s position now is both similar and different from the one Romney found himself in four years ago. Romney had been a moderate Republican governor, then had to convince primary voters he was a hard-right conservative, then struggled to convince general election voters he wasn’t a hard-right conservative. Bush, on the other hand, was a genuinely hard-right governor who now has to convince primary voters of that truth, and many of those voters don’t yet believe it. But in the general election, he’ll face the same problem Romney did. And if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, you can bet there will be more ads like the one I linked to, where women look into the camera with a mixture of sadness and anger and describe how Jeb Bush just doesn’t get them and isn’t on their side.