Thus far, on the politics of the contraception nontroversy, I have discussed how the President is advantaged by both standing up for women's health and women rights as well as by exposing the extremist, anti-women agenda of the GOP. What had escaped me though is that the exact way it played out - first announcing a rule that religious employers, like other employers, would be required to cover contraception in the insurance of non-Church employees and then shifting the mandate to insurance companies masterfully to take out any even supposed reasonable religious liberty concerns - could well have been engineered to do one other thing: throw the Republican primary process into chaos.
It certainly happened that way.
Of course, the polls aren't the only indication of the Santorum's rise (ok, I just grossed myself out) on the backs of 12th century social radicals - aka the GOP base. Since this so-called controversy erupted and the support for Santorum has exploded (Jesus, is there no way to talk about Santorum without the nasty, graphic imagery?), Santorum swept three contests in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado.
And Santorum's march continues. A Pew Research poll has found that Santorum has now passed Romney, and conservatives are leaving Mitt in droves.
Picking up 10 points among independent voters since November while Romney has lost the exact same amount, Obama now leads Romney and Santorum by almost the same margin.
Will Mitt Romney still win the Republican primary? In all likelihood, yes. Because he and his super-PAC have the money to bury Santorum under an avalanche of negative attacks and enough of an organization to win what should be Rick Santorum's natural territory, the CPAC straw poll.
But the issue here is not whether Romney will be the eventual nominee (and then flip flop his way to a loss in November), but that this sudden rise of Santorum fueled by social issue voters screws with Romney's plan in two very significant ways.
First, it lengthens the primary process, and makes Romney have to fight off his GOP challengers for a much longer period of time before he (and his gazillion-dollar Super PAC) is able to concentrate on a general election campaign.
Second, and more importantly, Romney has only very unpalatable choices of paths to the nomination. He has to go hard negative against Santorum, which will, without a doubt, tick off social conservatives who are already distrustful of Mitt Romney given his flip flopping positions on everything from a woman's right to make her own reproductive health care decision to LGBT rights to health care. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, in the mean time, will do much of the job of the President's campaign, tearing Romney up on things from the vulture capitalism of Bain Capital to Romneycare.
So it won't just take Mitt longer to wrap up the nomination, it will also drag down his popularity within his own party and shoot up his negatives through the sky. It could even be enough to make a few Republicans sit home in November. Even if it doesn't do that, it will undoubtedly damage enthusiasm. It's difficult enough to get excited about a privileged buffoon who walks, talks, and acts like a robot and thinks that the movement for economic justice - which is so intricately tied to civil rights that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself spoke about civil in terms of economic justice (the check coming back with insufficient funds) - is born of envy. It's hard enough to get excited about a candidate that is never sure himself of his stand on a given issue on a given day. But when that same candidate is also the one infamous among his own base for the politics of creative (and not-so-creative) destruction? That's going to be real difficult.
The media will keep telling you that the contraception nontroversy was a "self-inflicted wound" for the White House that gave social issues a center stage and that this has "energized" the social conservative base of the GOP. They are only half right - this has energized the social radicals, but with the GOP nomination race still unresolved, it only serves to make worse the fight between the warring Republican camps.
Nor, might I note, has this ...umm... "issue" suddenly turned the election year over to social issues (even if it had, given the polls above, and given that the brouhaha only served to move women to Obama, it has worked in the President's favor). With less than two weeks left before the payroll tax cut on every working American expires along with unemployment insurance benefits for those out of a job, the President is poised to pivot the conversation right back to the economy, and he's doing exactly that. And with any and all appearance of legitimacy for religious liberty concerns ended with the President's announcement on Friday and his budget released today, the conversation has no choice but to turn back to the economy.
In the final analysis, the only person the contraception "fight" hurts politically is the most likely opponent to President Obama in November: Mitt Romney. And if anything, politically, it has helped Obama. It only serves to wound the GOP candidate and the GOP brand, while the President is not only able to gain support from it from a critical American and Democratic constituency (women), but is also able to pivot back to the economy thanks to GOP's own prior actions (them not having extended the payroll tax cut throughout this year in December).
This man is a genius.