In the Arena

Limbaugh Lost and Other Notes on the Contraception Controversy

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Back in the 1950s, Senator Joe McCarthy ran roughshod over the political landscape, accusing people hither and yon of being communists, even taking on the U.S. Army in a moment of personal pique — and, finally, receiving a classic scolding at the hands of a Boston Brahman, the lawyer Joseph Welch, “Have you no decency at long last, sir?” These days we have Rush Limbaugh, who runs roughshod over the Republican Party, his antics untrammeled by GOP elected officials who should know better but quake at the power of his microphone. Until yesterday.

For the first time, members of the Republican hierarchy separated themselves from Limbaugh over his rancid remarks about Sandra Fluke, an activist who wants to make contraception a mandatory part of health-insurance plans. To be sure, the scolding wasn’t exactly Welchian; arguably it wasn’t even a scolding — but it was something less than the full-throated obeisance that Limbaugh is used to.  According to the New York Times:

On Friday, the House speaker, John A. Boehner, called the Limbaugh comments “inappropriate.” Rick Santorum, the former senator whose run for the Republican presidential nomination has thrust social conservatism into the spotlight, told CNN that Mr. Limbaugh was “being absurd.”

But, he added, “an entertainer can be absurd.”

Which is, of course, absurd. Limbaugh is something more, and less, than an entertainer. He is a demagogue. His remarks were not meant to entertain — they were meant to incite and demean. I should add that Mitt Romney said that Limbaugh’s were not the words he would have used, which, in classic supine Romney fashion, doesn’t disassociate himself from the larger position that Limbaugh took.

Our supple democracy often throws up suppurating pustules like Limbaugh; sooner or later a decent society builds antibodies to reject them. Glenn Beck — you remember him — managed to complete this cycle in about two years. Today’s tiny Republican rebellion may be the first sign that Limbaugh is losing his hold on the GOP.

On a related topic: while the Blunt bill was ridiculously written, and might have included anything, I still have reservations about government requiring coverage of contraception by employers. There are practical and theoretical arguments for this. The practical argument is, quite simply, that the Catholic Church operates many fine hospitals, schools, universities and other social facilities; I do believe that it should have the right to expect that its employees respect its doctrines (obviously, as with every right, this one exists within reasonable limitations). That goes for several practices that I find foolish and anachronistic — namely, the church’s opposition to contraception and also to gay adoption. But when you compare the good done by Catholic social services with the harm done by the church’s anachronistic prudery, the good overwhelms the harm. It is a practical good — and also, I believe, a constitutional right — that these services, especially those that service the poor, be allowed to flourish, and even receive government support, within the context of the church’s doctrines (again, within reason). Those Republicans who argue this case in narrow constitutional terms have a point: the First Amendment’s establishment clause was conceived to keep government out of religion as surely as it was intended to prevent a state religion from controlling the government.

As for the theoretical point: this argument proves the absurdity of our employer-provided health-insurance system. For one thing, we don’t require employers to provide health insurance — and yet, in this instance, the Obama Administration is mandating the coverage of contraception on companies that are doing the right thing by providing health insurance in the first place.

In an ideal system, employers wouldn’t have this responsibility. It is absurd, in the fierce competition of a global economy, that U.S. employers continue to have this burden. An ideal system would include an individual mandate but would be funded by a single payer — as Senators Ron Wyden and Bob Bennett proposed — through a progressive system of tax credits. Individuals would then have the choice of buying plans that included various features or not — contraception, dental coverage, eyeglasses, you name it. Again, these plans would have to include certain minimum requirements, like catastrophic coverage, annual physicals and hospital care. But, in the end, it should be up to individuals to decide the shape and size of their health care coverage — in a democracy we have to assume that the vast majority will act in their enlightened self-interest. The role of government is to set minimum requirements and forbid nothing — certainly not contraception, morning-after pills or early-term abortions.

Of course, all these arguments are peripheral: opposition to contraception, in any form, is a huge political loser for the Republican Party. It’s amazing that we’re even talking about this at a moment of such economic uncertainty.