Even as Rick Santorum was defending himself at last night's Republican primary debate for saying birth control was bad — "it's a license to do things in the sexual realm"– he tried to look a little less strident, promising, "just because I'm talking about it doesn't mean I want a government program to fix it." He just wants to talk about women's bodies—he doesn't want to do anything about it, okay?
On the very same night, the "transvaginal ultrasound" requirement that was excised from a Virginia anti-abortion bill, a move seen as one meant to protect Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's national ambitions. The renewed focus on social issues has Republican leaders feeling a little queasy. After being crushed in 2008, there was "widespread consensus within elite GOP circles" that the party base was "too white, too male and too strident," Politico reports. But with the debate over women's bodies, not to mention immigration, taking a harsh tone in the Republican primary, "the probable result looks more and more like a general election fought on a much narrower band of turf than the GOP leaders assumed even a few months ago," per Politico's John F. Harris and Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns. Suddenly it looks like the GOP wants out of the culture war it started.
Only a couple weeks ago, The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol was arguing for Santorum saying, it's not just "the economy, stupid." The social effects of "the arrogant destructiveness and wrongheaded fecklessness of modern liberalism" mattered, too. But now it looks like that might not be working out. The contraception debate is a "distraction," former Bush White House Political Director Sara Fagen told Politico. “As a general rule, when you’re in a bucket talking about women’s health and morality that’s not a space you want to be in long term, particularly when people are focused on jobs and gas prices." But the four guys competing to be the party's presidential nominee spent a good amount of time talking about it, with Ron Paul going on about the hormonal similarities between the morning-after pill and birth control. Santorum said he was worried about birth control because of the negative consequences of children having children. (Memo to Santorum: If "children" are on birth control, they can't have children.)
At The National Review, Maggie Gallagher, who has endorsed Santorum, writes that the candidate "needs to show he can put the contraception issue to bed. Now. Rick’s attempt in this debate was ineffectual spin city." His meandering about pregnant minors was unconvincing, she says: "Rick is very bad at fibbing. He looks very uncomfortable when he’s doing it." Gallagher recommends he give an interview saying he was a little bit too enthusiastic about explaining his beliefs, and that he's not running to be Preacher in Chief. Preferably with a female journalist.
Perhaps McDonnell had the ladies in mind when he changed his position on the bill requiring a medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasound before an abortion. "Some political analysts speculated that the decision was made with an eye to a broader national audience that might not look favorably on the passage of such a conservative bill," The New York Times' Sabrina Tavernise reports. "Most political analysts agreed that Mr. McDonnell was seeking to defuse an embarrassing and unmanageable situation — especially at a moment when he seems to be shifting his gaze to a national, and more centrist, audience." But McDonnell rose to prominence in part thanks to his opposition to abortion. In the Virginia legislature, he introduced bills banning late-term abortion and requiring parental consent before a minor gets one. Likewise, if Santorum didn't focus so much on social issues, he wouldn't be a national figure. He'd be just another team player, as he described himself Wednesday night. Surely these guys have an obligation to defend the policies that made them famous, even if the wedge issues are wedging in the other direction these days.