Obama on solid ground

The debate over a woman’s access to what most consider basic, preventive healthcare reveals how dramatically lines have shifted in the culture wars. The Republican Party’s rhetoric lowers its common denominator in an attempt to appeal to a shrinking base of voters and capitalize on fears about these shifts — at the same time giving Democrats and progressives the opportunity to expand the conversation onto common ground with more Americans based on core values like fairness and the role of government in a 21st-century context. Which is exactly what President Obama accomplished last week.

Politically, the initial policy rollout could have been better. But the president’s policy was always on solid ground — a majority of Americans, including Catholic women (and the men they are sleeping with), support access to and use contraception. Going back to 1936, majorities of Americans supported use and access to birth control: a Roper/Fortune magazine poll found 63 percent of Americans believed in the “teaching and practice of birth control” and 43 percent of Catholics favored its availability. And when the Vatican ruled against the use of contraception in 1965, Gallup found that only 28 percent of American Catholics agreed with that decision, and clear majorities of Americans believed women should have access to contraception. That mirrors recent findings that a majority believe “employers should be required to provide their employees with healthcare plans that cover contraceptives and birth control at no cost,” according to the Public Religion Research Institution.

The president’s accommodation wisely took the Catholic bishops’ key objection off the table — religious institutions aren’t required to directly pay for health plans that include contraception. That’s supported by a range of organizations, 57 percent of Catholic voters and 59 percent of Catholic women. His solution reminded voters that having a president who believes government has a role to play in protecting the rights of everyone — not just powerful corporations or institutions — has a direct, positive impact on their lives. And by rejecting the politics of either/or, Obama put forward a values-based solution that protects and respects both the rights of the church and constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion, and the constitutionally guaranteed rights of individuals, specifically a woman’s ability to make decisions about her healthcare.

In a world where more women than men vote, and men own 52 percent of businesses, the GOP risks further alienating voters with promises to repeal Obama’s solution, replacing it with an extreme proposal empowering any institution or corporation, even without religious affiliation, to take away a woman’s access to contraception; or a governor who is personally opposed to contraception to deny access to Medicaid patients eligible under the Affordable Care Act. Independent voters, crucial to the GOP’s 2010 election successes, oppose the GOP position by 52 percent; 55 percent of Catholic voters oppose eliminating requirements that make contraceptives available with no copay. In a general election, severe conservative Mitt Romney will also face 50 percent of independent voters, 59 percent of Hispanic Catholics and 54 percent of Catholic women who agree with Obama.

Here’s what they don’t understand: An increasing number of ordinary Americans know personally what it means — as with the repeal of Jim Crow requiring federal intervention — to have the federal government protect their rights. And telling women they don’t know when they’ve been raped or are too emotional to serve in combat reveals an ignorance about women and our place in 21st-century America not shared by a majority of our fellow citizens.

Karen Finney is a political analyst for MSNBC and Democratic consultant.