Opinion writer

If you want to get a sense of how the politics of the battle over Planned Parenthood may play out this fall, and possibly in the 2016 race, it’s worth watching Hillary Clinton’s long interview with the Des Moines Register editorial board.

Conservatives are demanding that GOP leaders use the looming government shutdown battle to eviscerate Planned Parenthood, by refusing to support funding for the government that doesn’t also defund the group. GOP leaders have dismissed this strategy as borderline lunacy. But some GOP presidential candidates support the idea, and this group isn’t confined to far right conservatives like Ted Cruz: Marco Rubio has signaled some sympathy with this approach. Meanwhile, establishment candidates like Jeb Bush and John Kasich have at a minimum endorsed defunding the group, if not diving headlong off a shutdown cliff over it.

Clinton has defended Planned Parenthood before, but in the portion of the Des Moines Register interview in which she discussed the group, she telegraphed a more detailed response. Asked about the fetal tissue videos, Clinton immediately brushed off that part of the question, noting that fact-checkers had debunked claims (those made by Carly Fiorina) about the videos’ contents, suggesting that Republicans are “trying to inflame their base” against the group. She added:

“I will continue to defend Planned Parenthood, because services that Planned Parenthood provides are broad, and necessary for millions of American women. Five hundred thousand breast screening exams. A lot of other screening programs that are carried out. Family planning and contraceptive testing for HIV AIDS.

“The Republican have made it clear in recent years that they are not only opposed to abortion, which they have been for quite some time. They’re increasingly opposed to family planning and contraception. This is a direct assault on a woman’s right to choose health care. Forget about abortion, which is something that a limited number of Planned Parenthood facilities perform, with not a penny of federal money.

“The money they want to cut off…is money that goes to health services. That is why it’s important that we continue to try to educate the public and draw a very clear line in defense of Planned Parenthood.”

The Clinton camp appears to have calculated that an immediate pivot away from the videos and the controversial topic of abortion, and to the group’s role in providing a range of health services to women, is not hard to pull off. And that the politics of this battle are worse for Republicans over the long term, particularly for a general election.

Wonkblog’s Danielle Paquette recently reported that nixing Planned Parenthood’s $500 million in annual public funds would have “broad ramifications, especially for low-income women who rely on subsidized services for birth control.” Paquette cited PP data showing that 80 percent of its clients receive services designed to prevent unintended pregnancies, while only three percent of its services each year are abortions. And she noted that the group provides birth control services to large percentages of women who seek those services in many states.

By vowing to “educate the public” and draw a “clear line” on what defunding Planned Parenthood would really mean, Clinton is in effect telegraphing what Democrats will do if and when this heats up and gets litigated in 2016: try to cast this as a Republican assault on family planning and women’s health care services, by pointing out that killing the group’s funding actually would defund those services.

Republicans who question the push for a shutdown, such as New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, have raised doubts about its prospects for success. But it would not be surprising if the smarter GOP strategists also recognized that the particular attack Clinton launched above — aside from whether there is even a government shutdown at all — has the potential to be very damaging to Republicans. After all, Obama used it in 2012, attacking Mitt Romney’s suggestion that he would “get rid” of Planned Parenthood to paint him as hidebound and out of touch on contraception and women’s health issues. Obama campaign focus groups found Romney’s remarks to be a terrible turnoff for undecided women.

That exchange unfolded without the benefit of a government shutdown fight over the group. The battle was only over whether Planned Parenthood should be funded. The shutdown aside, all the GOP candidates do favor defunding the group. A shutdown only draws more attention to an underlying dispute that the Clinton camp already appears to relish, as she is (of course) a female candidate who hopes to make this election in part about family and women’s economics.

To be sure, it’s certainly possible that the recently surfaced fetal tissue videos could turn this battle into a more perilous one for Clinton. But it’s also plausible that even if there is widespread public disgust over the videos and real polarization around abortion, shifting the debate to one over whether we should continue funding the group’s family planning, women’s health and contraceptive services won’t be that hard to do.