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Smart v. Stupid

Is birth control the new third rail of politics?

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The heart-stopping moment during the CNN Arizona Republican debate came when a citizen named T’sah posed a simple, online question:

“Since birth control is the latest hot topic, which candidate believes in birth control, and if not, why?”

The Mesa audience booed loudly. (It was a stark reminder of the gay soldier question.) You could watch each of the candidates squirming like schoolboys.

The two Catholics and the Mormon looked like they were about to get rapped on the knuckles with a ruler. Ron Paul – turtle-like – seemed to try to duck down into his suit, but for once it fit well enough to offer little protection. It seemed clear that each knew the power of The Pill.

In case you’re too young to remember, it was 1981 when the nation’s most famous House Speaker, Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, first called Social Security reform “the third rail of American Politics.” It was an apt metaphor referring to the high-voltage rail for electric trains and subways. Anyone touching this rail was instantly electrocuted. Barry Goldwater had suffered this metaphorical fate after he opposed Social Security during his disastrous 1964 presidential run.

Back in the present, Gingrich was the first to duck the query, predictably attacking the question and the media by claiming that no one had asked Barack Obama why he was a baby killer. This, Gingrich implied, was summary judgment of the illegitimacy of this question. And then – just as predictably – he presented his “so there!” pout rather than answer. With it, he greased the panel’s pivot away from the question and toward their views of “religious freedom.”

Revealingly though, Gingrich had spoken the phrase, “If you want to have a debate on who the extremist is …,” telegraphing the true fear of these candidates. That wasn’t part of the question. But they are all aware – except for Crazy Rick Santorum maybe – of how much the party risks losing the election from extremist views. This year, any debate on who the true extremist is – on most any subject – favors the incumbent, President Obama. Today, Republican George Pataki voiced his agreement – it was a good night for Obama, he admitted.

Essentially, they all believe that any bishop can prevent any woman from having access to birth control based simply on his (presumably celibate) conscience. It’s an interesting notion completely at odds with the individual rights granted by the First Amendment. We’ve already debunked the belief that our Constitution confers rights on churches rather than citizens. It doesn’t. The government can’t make bishops take birth control – that is the limit of their religious rights.

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Mitt Romney (who otherwise won the debate) mused “We wondered why in the world is birth control …” before attempting to draw a conspiracy between a previous debate moderator, George Stephanopoulos, and some sort of shadowy attempt to terminate religious rights – using birth control as a ruse. Stephanopoulos, of course, served in the Clinton administration and now works for a network, so it would only be obvious to conclude that he’s in league with both the White House and the Devil.

This brings us to Rick Santorum. Santorum is arguably the guy who caused this firestorm, what with his campaign to put Sharia cough Biblical law over the Constitution. Moderator John King noted that Santorum had been saying he bravely talks about what "no president has talked about before – the dangers of contraception."

To Santorum, the dangers of contraception are “fractured” families and out-of-wedlock births – two societal problems that seem, to most people, like they only can be improved by universal access to birth control.

It often seems like many of these guys haven’t checked a fact (or visited a poor neighborhood, for that matter) since the 1980s. On-purpose, out-of-wedlock births have increased as more and more couples shun legal marriage, but accidental birth rates are falling. Teen pregnancies peaked 21 years ago and have been dropping ever since. They are enough of a curiosity to have a “reality” show on MTV. Teenage abortions are at the lowest rate since abortion became legal – one fourth of what they were in 1986. Why it’s enough to make you support birth control isn’t it?

Of all the candidates, it would be most important for Santorum to give a clear and cogent answer to the question. But after telegraphing he arrived at his views based on outdated statistics, he devolved into his latest shtick: Just because I believe something doesn’t mean I’m going to make you do it. Does anyone really trust him on that?

Ron Paul urged us not to blame the chemical for the bad acts of people. It was probably an honest argument if the issue were arson or murder, but seemed an odd response for a gynecologist who was discussing family planning. Does he think birth control is irresponsible? Like all the others, his actual views remained under wraps.

One thing is clear as a bell, though: Each of these guys is deathly afraid of saying whether or not he believes in birth control. That kind of sheer cowardice is unworthy of the office they seek.

Jimmy Zuma splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Tucson. He writes the online opinion journal, Smart v. Stupid. He spent 5 years in Tucson in the early ‘80s, when life was a little slower, swamp coolers were a little more plentiful, Tucson’s legendary music scene was in full bloom, and the prevailing work ethic was “don’t - unless you have to.”

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This year, any debate on who the true extremist is – on most any subject – favors the incumbent, President Obama.

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