Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Narrative War: Contraception vs. Gas Prices

Several polls recently put Obama's job approval ratings down. The Washington Post-ABC poll puts him at 46% approval and blames it on gas prices. A New York Times-CBS poll puts him at 41%. A Rasmussen Poll has him at 47% (but a recent Gallup poll has him at 49%).

Here is the Blogosphere Commentary
HotAir takes a hand-to-forehead approach with the headline "Oh my: Obama's approval rating hits new low in CBS poll." (it notes that even with these lows Obama still leads all four GOP candidates head-to-head). While the bolded quote from the poll highlights a gas prices the article's opening line is:
Second look at the "war on women"?
The majority of the analysis in the post is about employers and birth control.

Over at Ace Of Spades a short post upgrades the race from "meh" to "eh?" and their only comment on the meaning of the new, encouraging poll numbers? A sarcastic:
Looks like that giant contraception distraction worked great, hunh?
An insightful update to the piece asks what it would take to further upgrade to "Yeah?" The answer is that it would take state-level polling showing a return to the fall of 2011 where light-blue states are slipping. This means that the purple states (OH, FL, VA, NC, NH, CO, IA, and NV) are already lost to him. This is, I think, pretty good commentary.

Powerline tells us: "Another Poll Shows Obama Slipping." It discusses the gas-price issue but then follows that up with a second post using the hash-tag based title "#BSFail" which, again, spends the most text of its analysis on contraception. They say:
Despite the intense propaganda barrage to which we have been subjected over the past several weeks, CBS reports that most Americans believe there should be an exception to the mandate requiring employers who may have a moral or religious objection to cover birth control for their employees — by a margin of 57-36. A majority believes that even nonreligious employers should have the right to opt out — by a margin of 51-40. CBS reports the results of the poll here. To the extent that the White House and its media friends have succeeded in confusing the issue, Americans support the White House position. 
This compared to the length of the gas price discussion:
A sidebar to the poll shows that a majority of Americans believes gas prices are something a president can do a lot about — by a margin of 54-36. The poll on the president’s power to affect gas prices is also reported here.
The Two Narratives
The two competing narratives are that what's driving down Obama's numbers are (a) it's pain-at-the-pump vs. (b) It's about religious rights and contraception. American Thinker looks at three headlines from Fox News, the Washington Post, and ABC. All three of them call out gas prices. The author says:

I do not believe a word of this research, or the news articles reporting the results. In the context of spinning the President's popularity, the pump price of gas is a bogus issue to cover up his weakness in other areas, and to create a divisive battle over energy policy.
He thinks that questions about gas prices have been added only since Obama became President. He'd like to see a question about jobs. If you Google 'Contraception Distraction' you find links like this: Wag The Co-ed: Contraception Distraction Is No Fluke, Reveals Obama’s Desperation:
The real issue here is Obama’s attack on the constitution and religious liberty. But he and his media cohorts would rather create red herrings to distract the American public from jobs, gas prices, astronomical debt, the unconstitutional government takeover of health care, and any other issue that is actually RELEVANT to voters.
Rush Limbaugh says this (before the gas-price polls--but still relevant):
The truth of the matter is that the president is still finding it difficult with women in his approval numbers.
And that's why they wanted to change the subject from whether or not he behaved unconstitutionally in mandating churches give away abortion pills (or birth control pills), to: "Republicans don't agree with contraception!" It's totally made up. There's not a Republican out there that wants to ban contraception. There's not a Republican in the world that, as a political issue, wants anything to do with it. It's totally manufactured, and it's succeeded in distracting everybody's attention from what Obama had done, and it's meant to portray the Republicans as Neanderthal troglodytes while the party of Bill Clinton (who's destroyed Monica Lewinsky's life among others) is held up as God's gift to women! Everything's 180 degrees out of phase.
Both these narratives are complicated and somewhat contradictory--but the basic thrust remains: the Obama administration, in collusion with the Main-Stream Media wants to have one conversation (either about gas prices or women's access to contraception) and the real issue (either religious freedom or imaginary Republican assaults on contraception--or job creation) is something else. Let's briefly look:

The Gas Prices Narrative
Nate Silver finds only a limited correlation with the poll numbers (although he amends his original look to say that as more polls show a decline in approval ratings there might be something to it). On the other hand, it's counter intuitive that Obama would want to talk about gas prices since he's against the Keystone XL pipeline (which, in theory at least, would lower gas prices) and drilling. Also: he doesn't think there's much he can do about them anyway (or at least that's what he says).

Additionally, a lot of people think gas prices are a winning issue for the GOP:

If you don't believe that, look at this: Networks Hype Rising Gas Prices 4 Times More for Bush, Than Obama:
The Business and Media Institute analyzed broadcast network news references to gas or fuel prices between Jan. 20 and Feb. 20, 2012 and from March 24 and April 24, 2008. BMI found that in the 2008 period there were more than 4 times as many gas prices stories, news briefs or news headlines on ABC, CBS and NBC as there were in 2012 (97 to 21).
So--gas prices at least were the conversation the GOP wanted. Why would Obama and the MSM want to focus on that with the polls? Could it be because there's an even bigger loser out there?

The Contraception Narrative
In this narrative the Obama administration launches its covert War on Religion and, as one of the key maneuvers, opens fire with a shot at the heart of the Catholic church: forcing their hospitals (and other religiously affiliated businesses) to have insurance that pays for contraception. When the right, righteously, complains, the Obama administration deftly pivots and uses Sandra Fluke, a secret operative, to strike a political blow by shifting the discussion to access to contraception and women's health as a whole. This has the predictable result of enraging Rush Limbaugh who stoops to their level:
"They've demonstrated over and over a willingness to do anything... It's what we fight against every day. In fighting them in this issue last week i became like them... Against my own instincts against, my own knowledge… I descended to their level when I used those two words to describe Sandra Fluke, I descended to their level and I feel very badly about that."
Once the incendiary flames are going full blast, the Obama administration can sit back and bask in the glow of the "War on Women" which creates a valuable wedge issue to boost their standing with the female voting bloc.

Is this true?

Well, it certainly could be. We know that very early in the cycle George Stephanopolous asked Mitt Romney a contraception-based debate question on the basis of a comment Rick Santorum (at the time a serious also-ran) once made. The Blaze runs this headline: ‘PAID DEMOCRATIC HITMAN’: STEPHANOPOULOS’ BIZARRE DEBATE QUESTION ON CONTRACEPTION SUDDENLY MAKES SENSE
At the time, critics called Stephanopoulos’ contraception question a non sequitur. Indeed, judging by the look on Mitt Romney’s face, the question seemed to come out of nowhere.
But that was then. That was before war broke out between the Catholic Church and the Obama administration. That was before the infamous HHS mandate that forces religious organizations to provide employees coverage for contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs.
While it appears that Sandra Fluke really is a 3rd-year law student, there is also evidence (see the 'secret operative' link above) that she's an activist and her participation in this discussion is no accident. It's then possible that things went like this:

  1. Seeing the economy as a losing issue, Team Obama primed the contraception issue (perhaps after seeing how the Konen for the Cure issue played out) in the Stephanopoulous debate.
  2. They opened fire with their provocative health care measure and then used their plotted "fall back" (Insurance companies would provide the coverage for free--no the institution--which requires a pretty gymnastic twist of logic to buy--but possibly provided a fig-leaf of 'respect'). This was supposed to satisfy just enough people while making the GOP froth at the mouth. 
  3. The second part worked--better than expected--with Rush Limbaugh swallowing the hook, the line, and the sinker.
  4. But then, as the polls show, the first part (satisfying people) combined with the Bullshit Offensive isn't working: likely voters are still upset with the Obama administration--so, as the economy (and the spun numbers) limp towards better-than-absolute-crap--the Main-Stream-Media pivots again: they play the gas prices card in desperation to distract from the War On Religion narrative.
What Do I Think?
Team Obama is pretty slick. The media, mainstream or not, does like him--a lot more than they as a whole liked Bush, anyway. There's enough here, if only barely, to hang a hat on. Certainly the Obama campaign is opportunistic. When the GOP makes a mistake they're ready to pounce.

But that's not conspiracy theory.

I find it very, very difficult to believe that anyone could have predicted how Sandra Fluke would play out--and I don't think Team Obama has a battery of assets in place for each potential issue waiting for an exploitable one. In other words, I think that Fluke's positioning was just weird luck ... a ... oh, come on, you know what I'd say*. I think Santorum's position on contraception is one of several he holds that could be pretty toxic in the general (attack Iran, go back to DADT, man-on-dog, JFK-made-me-sick, college-is-for-snobs, etc.) and that's bait for the media (paid hitman or not).

I also think that after the gas-price spike under Bush it's not surprising that questions about gas would be added to the polls: gas prices are the major thrust of Newt Gingrich's second comeback--if anything is a fair question it's that. So again, and not surprisingly, I don't think any of this requires a conspiracy. I think instead that Limbaugh's virtue (he excites the base) is also a vice (exciting the base can sometimes be toxic to the middle). I think that Fluke, had she been allowed to testify in the original meeting (her exclusion provided fuel for the campaign)--if she had been ignored byRush, the issue would never have blown up.

Indeed, attempts to bring up the contraception issue (Stephanopolous' question) fizzled and were met with derision. Mitt Romney is not a light-weight--but he is no master of debate jujitsu and he was able to laugh off and deflect the contraception question. If he could make it look easy, anyone could. 

In essence, I don't see the "contraception issue" as a loser for GOP unless they seriously fumble the ball--as they did--and if Team Obama can predict, with precision, where the entire GOP field will make unforced errors? Then the Republican campaign is over before it ever started. I find that unlikely--but let's ask Agent Smith:

No Reince Priebus, your candidates are already dead.
* "A fluke, if you will." You're welcome.


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