Rick Santorum continues to gain ground in the Republican race – two new polls even rank him number one – and Democrats everywhere are ecstatic. Nothing would buoy Obama’s prospects more effectively than the good fortune of drawing an opponent who cedes the middle of the electorate, who preaches like a pope about women’s personal lives.By now, you’re probably familiar with Santorum’s take on contraception. Despite the data, compiled by the Guttmacher Institute, which shows that 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used birth control, he thinks it’s all very immoral. In fact, he’s most dissatisfied with the way most American women have sex:”One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before is, I think, the dangers of contraception in this country. It’s not OK. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”How things are supposed to be…Santorum uttered that edict last October, in an interview that was largely ignored, given his low poll standing at the time. Four months later, we’re finally paying attention. Indeed, Republicans may need to ask themselves whether it’s feasible that they can win over swing voters in November with a nominee whose views on contraception appear to be rooted in the 1950s.Answer: It’s not feasible – despite Santorum’s ongoing insistence that his views are merely personal and would have no bearing on how he’d actually govern the women of America.He said that again yesterday, on Meet The Press: “No one’s denying them access to birth control….I agree with the Catholic church on the issue of contraception. But…that’s a different position than I have with respect to public policy. Public policy, women should have access to contraception. I have no problem with that at all.”Perhaps we should dub him Tricky Rick, because that spin (which is aimed at swing voters and women in general) is seriously disingenuous.Of course he has problems with women getting access to contraception. We know this, because he supports policies that would make it tougher for women to get access.The federal health reform law is designed to give women easy access to free contraception, but Santorum wants to kill the law. He wants to cut off all federal funds that help women get easy access. And he doesn’t want insurance companies to cover contraception at all; as he insisted last Friday, “It is not really an insurable item.” (It is not really an insurable item…He has no clue what he’s talking about. Nearly 15 percent of birth control prescriptions are written for serious medical reasons, such as endometrial cancer, polycystic fibrosis, dysmenorrhea, and ovarian cysts.)Bottom line: If President Santorum had his way in the policy realm, fewer women would have contraception. Naturally, the burden would fall most heavily on the low end of the income scale; without federal help or private insurance, the women least able to afford the out-of-pocket costs (roughly $600 to $1000 a year, depending on the contraceptive device) would simply be out of luck.But that’s his whole purpose. He’s supposedly fine with legal contraception (as he keeps trying to reassure swing voters); he merely wants to whittle down the number of women who can get legal contraception. And clearly, the way to do that is to hit them in the pocketbook. A recent poll conducted by Hart Research Associates found that 55 percent of women, aged 18 to 34, “have struggled with the cost of prescription birth control.” Perfect grist for Santorum. Those struggles would give him something to build on.When Tricky Rick addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference last Friday, he again tried some verbal trickery: “It’s not about contraception. It’s about economic liberty.” Spoken like a politician who spent 16 years in Washington. The reality is that, in Santorum’s preferred policy realm, a sizable number of women would lack the economic liberty to afford contraception.His core purpose is to use government to control personal lives. Some may call that conservatism, but it sure seems intrusive to me. Democrats truly dearly deeply hope that the GOP anoints Santorum this summer, and that he espouses those views this autumn. Why? Because women are typically 52 percent of the general electorate. They would flee Santorum in droves. It was fine for Pope Paul VI to condemn birth control in his encyclical Humanae Vitae way back in 1968. But this is the political arena, not church. And this is, after all, the 21st century.
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