Today Cecile Richards, the head of Planned Parenthood, testified before Congress amid a scrum of cameras and spectators. Hearings like this one are of course not about fact-finding but are created as media events, in the sense that they exist only for the purpose of being broadcast. They allow members of Congress to attempt to get on the evening news, and both parties hope what comes out of the hearing will aid their side in an ongoing controversy, in this case the question of whether the government should “defund” Planned Parenthood (and whether Republicans should shut down the government over it).
The hearing also demonstrated why Republicans are going to lose on this issue.
Let me take just one exchange. Rep. Jim Jordan, one of the most conservative members of the House, used his time shouting at Richards because she admitted at one point that she had originally “apologized for the tone and statements” in the “sting” videos that started this controversy. Apparently Jordan imagined that in making this admission, she had fallen into a trap and would now have to admit that Planned Parenthood had committed some kind of misconduct. Watching his voice get louder and louder, it seemed as though Jordan was thinking, “I’ve really got her now.” But what did he actually prove? Nothing.
Nor did any of the other Republicans. All seemed to have some very specific question they had prepared, one that was designed to produce a “gotcha” moment. But Richards didn’t have any trouble answering any of them, because the accusations that drove them aren’t all that controversial unless your starting point is that abortion is evil and so is anything in any way connected to it. That’s a position many people hold, but it isn’t a position most Americans hold, and it doesn’t actually tell you whether we should shut down the government. Here are some of the charges Republicans made during the hearing:
- Cecile Richards is well-compensated as the head of Planned Parenthood!
- Planned Parenthood supports family planning in foreign countries!
- Planned Parenthood clinics don’t have their own radiological centers with mammogram machines!
- Planned Parenthood has a separate political organization!
- Which is involved in politics! And most of all…
- Planned Parenthood does abortions!
All of these things are true. Whether you think they are nefarious depends entirely on what you think about abortion in general and Planned Parenthood in particular. But the chances that any significant portion of the public is going to change what they think about this issue once they learn these things is vanishingly small.
In a poll out today from the Pew Research Center, 60 percent of respondents said a budget agreement should include funding for Planned Parenthood, while 32 percent said it shouldn’t. As you might expect, now that the issue is getting lots of attention, opinion is intensely polarized: Democrats say that Planned Parenthood should get funded by a margin of 83-10, while Republicans disagree by 66-25. But independents take Planned Parenthood’s side by a margin of 64-29.
Republicans are trying to make a two-stage argument here. The first is that Planned Parenthood is bad. If they can convince the public of that — a challenge in itself, particularly when so many women have personal experience with the organization — then they need to convince the public further that Planned Parenthood is so bad that keeping it from getting any Medicaid reimbursements (which make up the bulk of the organization’s federal funding) is worth shutting down the government over.
If you think Republicans will do that successfully, then you probably also thought they were going to successfully get the Affordable Care Act repealed by shutting down the government two years ago. And we saw how that worked out.