President Obama hit Romney hard on the issue of contraception in Tuesday’s debate, and we saw Romney do what he’s done in every political environment: docilely accept the terms offered by his opponent (whether that’s Massachusetts liberalism or talk-radio conservatism). Here’s how he responded to Obama:
I — I’d just note that I don’t believe that bureaucrats in Washington should tell someone whether they can use contraceptives or not, and I don’t believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care or not. Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives. And—and the—and the president’s statement of my policy is completely and totally wrong.
Romney whiffed this. He should have made the point—which most Americans intuitively realize—that contraception was widely available before Obamacare, and that it would be possible to make it even more widely available without, say, forcing priests, nuns, or anybody else to pay for it. There was no need for Romney to talk about Humanae Vitae or Contraception and Chastity. Just point out the president’s false opposition, ding Obamacare, and move on.
Instead, Romney swallowed Obama’s framing wholesale. Contraception is good, some people do want to take it away from women, but not Romney. That said, what Romney didn’t do—despite what some of my friends said to me tonight—is reverse his position or betray those worried about the mandate.
The statement that will have some social conservatives up in arms is, “I don’t believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care or not.”
Nothing in this statement is incompatible with opposition to the HHS Mandate rightly understood. Even if employers don’t pay for contraception, there are many ways for women to get it. The fact that Romney didn’t change his position is further reinforced by his last sentence (“And—and the—and the president’s statement of my policy is completely and totally wrong.”). He rejects Obama’s description of his policy—opposition to the mandate—while sticking to the policy itself.
I wish Romney had stood for religious liberty, but I don’t think he would have done well to dive into details. His statement was aimed not at engaged voters worried about the HHS mandate (on either side) but rather at voters who haven’t paid much attention but are worried that he will somehow take away their contraception.
Romney’s contraception answer will reassure these low-information voters, but it will not make staffers at Emily’s List think Romney has come to their side. Voters worried about the HHS mandate, by the same token, should reread his statement and consider his intended audience before accusing Romney of betrayal.
Update: My colleague Anna Williams still has doubts about Romney.