At the CNN GOP debate last night in Arizona, the candidates were asked this question:
Since birth control is the latest hot topic, which candidate believes in birth control, and if not, why?
The question was roundly booed by the audience. Republicans hated this line of questioning when it was aired in a debate a few weeks back by former Democratic White House Communications Director George Stephanopoulos, at a time when it seemed to have nothing at all to do with the issues in the campaign. Since then, President Obama has forced the issue into the public debate with the HHS mandate that all employers, even those with religious objections, include contraceptive coverage in employer-provided health care plans, so the subject can't be avoided entirely. And in fact, for various good reasons, Republicans will probably be talking a good deal about the assault on religious liberty in general and the Catholic Church in particular in the months to come. But there's a simpler way of framing the right answer to this in a debate.
Newt Gingrich came pretty close to the right answer to this question, before the other candidates rambled off in various wrong directions, although Rick Santorum came back to something like the right note right at the end of his. First, here was Newt's answer, which may prove the final installment of the "Newt crushes the debate moderators" series we've been seeing for the past seven months:
I want to make two -- I want to make two quick point, John.
The first is there is a legitimate question about the power of the government to impose on religion activities which any religion opposes. That's legitimate.
KING: Sure is.
GINGRICH: But I just want to point out, you did not once in the 2008 campaign, not once did anybody in the elite media ask why Barack Obama voted in favor of legalizing infanticide. OK? So let's be clear here.
GINGRICH: If we're going to have a debate about who the extremist is on these issues, it is President Obama who, as a state senator, voted to protect doctors who killed babies who survived the abortion. It is not the Republicans.
Moe Lane deals with the BAIPA issue. Newt is, for various legitimate reasons, almost certainly not going to be the nominee (in 2012, or ever), but he's put on a clinic this campaign season on some of the crucial things Republicans have to do in debates, speeches and interviews, and one of those is his willingness to put out in the open the extent to which lines of questioning to Republicans and Democrats are asymmetrical and unstated assumptions are shared between the Democrats and the media. Newt's approach should be studied by every future GOP campaign.
After Newt, Romney gave a halfway decent answer about religious conscience (albeit one that, characteristically, elided areas of agreement between his own record and Obama's on this issue). Then Santorum took the bait and started into a digression on the importance of the family, which is a winning issue for him in general but not in the context of this particular question. Finally, Santorum brought the point back close to where the answer should have started:
And you know what? Here's the difference.
The left gets all upset. "Oh, look at him talking about these things." You know, here's the difference between me and the left, and they don't get this. Just because I'm talking about it doesn't mean I want a government program to fix it.
That's what they do. That's not what we do.
As it happens, Santorum is also not the ideal messenger on this point, because he pretty quickly segued into explaining how that is what he did with funding for abstinence education - try to counter a bad liberal program by adding a good conservative program on top of it. I'm sympathetic to the impulse that led Bush-era Republicans to pursue this course, but its time has passed. Newt, by contrast, tried to put things in the proper context and remind people why that time has passed:
I want to go a step further, because this makes a point that Ron Paul has been making for a generation and that people need to take very seriously.
When you have government as the central provider of services, you inevitably move towards tyranny, because the government has the power of force.
You inevitably -- and I think this is true whether it's Romneycare or Obamacare or any other government centralized system -- you inevitably move towards the coercion of the state and the state saying, "If you don't do what we, the politicians, have defined, you will be punished either financially or you will be punished in some other way like going to jail."
And that's why we are, I think, at an enormous crossroads in this country. And I think the fact is, for almost all of us who have been at this for any length of time, we're now looking at an abyss that forces you to change what you may once have thought -- and I suspect all four of us are much more worried today about the power of the state than we would have been -- with the possible exception of Congressman Paul -- than we would have been at any point in the last 25 years.
As he so often does, Newt captured the actual rationale of why a lot of people in the party - voters and elected officials alike - are more skeptical today of the kinds of things that litter the records of even people like Newt and Santorum who have solid conservative instincts and principles. It's among the causes of radicalization on spending and regulation I detailed in my original essay on the Establishment on the Right.
Speaking of lessons that Republicans can draw from Newt, I would highly recommend this one: you have to campaign on three levels, Principle, Policy and Results. That is, first you explain your ideas and principles and how they differ from your opponent; then, you explain how your policies would differ; and only then do you bring home (by some combination of data and anecdote) how the record of your policies is good and the record of the other guy's is bad. Romney, in particular, tends to skip ahead to the third step a lot (blasting Obama's jobs record) or at least skip one of the first two steps, either failing to communicate conservative principles or stating them in general terms without bothering to detail how his own proposals would put those principles in practice in ways that differ from Obama. This is one reason why Romney tends to get in trouble discussing things like the stimulus, the auto bailouts and the unemployment rate when he is confronted with the contrary arguments about Obama's results; he hasn't tied his arguments into a coherent critique but is just assuming the voters already agree with his assessment that the stuff Obama has done isn't working. As a result, Romney's not very effective in persuading people who may be on the fence.
So, how should a Republican presidential candidate have answered that question? Like this:
If you're asking me what I personally believe about birth control, that's a private issue and it's none of anybody's business. People have different moral views about birth control, and they can make their own individual choices in private. It's a free country.
But if you're asking me if the federal government should be involved in contraception, my answer is simple. Barack Obama says it should - he's the one who wants the federal government to stick its nose into birth control. I say it shouldn't - you want it, you get it yourself. Tell President Obama that he should repeal the new federal rules, because birth control is none of the federal government's business.
Even people who don't agree with social conservatives on moral issues and aren't especially interested in religious liberty can understand the appeal of freedom and the downsides of having the federal government insert itself into these issues. If Republicans can't carry a simple message like that, we shouldn't be in this business.