Wednesday, August 30, 2006

White House Pisses Off Social Conservatives With Plan B Decision

I figured that when the Bush administration announced that the Plan B morning-after contraceptive pill would be sold over the counter to adults, social conservatives would be pissed off at the decision. But McClatchy Newspapers reports that social conservatives are not angry at the decision so much as at the way the administration has treated them when they have called to ask about the decision:

WASHINGTON - Just 10 weeks before the midterm elections, the White House has irked its base again.

This time it's social conservatives, who are disappointed that President Bush endorsed a decision to allow over-the-counter sales of the Plan B morning-after contraceptive pill to adults. Making matters much worse, the White House all but blew off those conservatives who called to ask about the decision.

It's part of a take-or-leave-it attitude that the White House has applied to friends and opponents alike ever since Bush took office. What's surprising is that he and his staff maintain the stance even with his popularity near five-year lows, his legislative agenda dead and prospects good that his party will lose control of the House of Representatives this fall.


Tom McClusky, the vice president for government affairs at the Family Research Council, said he wanted to give the president the benefit of the doubt when the FDA announced its expected ruling.

McClusky said he assumed that Bush went along with the decision only as a deal to get two Democratic senators - Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Patty Murray of Washington state - to drop their objections and clear the way for the Senate to confirm the president's choice to head the FDA, Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach.

So McClusky and other social conservatives were stunned, they said, when they heard Bush say, " I support Andy's decision."

At Focus on the Family, a Colorado-based group, bioethics analyst Carrie Gordon Earll said the president's comment "shocked and surprised" her.

At the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council, McClusky dialed the White House, looking for some clarification. He expected to hear, for example, that Bush had to go along to get Eschenbach's nomination through.

What he got was the president's words read to him, nothing else.

"The people we got a hold of were not helpful at all. I called to get a clarification . . . all they sent me was a transcript," he said.

"I asked a number of people in the White House for clarification, and all of them simply sent me the president's remarks. And I haven't heard anything since."

Now the Family Research Council and other allies among social conservatives and in Congress are weighing a lawsuit to challenge the FDA's decision. News of such a confrontation just before this fall's elections could aggravate the White House's hopes of energizing conservatives to vote.

"This is not an issue that grabs people around the dinner table. It doesn't grab people like the war or taxes, or even marriage or the abortion decision in South Dakota," McClusky said.

"But people are going to wonder why all these pro-life, pro-family groups are suing this administration."

Sitting at their kitchen tables in districts with close House races or states with close Senate races, some social conservatives could react with anger and not vote at all. Or they might remain sufficiently afraid of the Democrats to vote but too apathetic to help get anyone else to vote.

Close contests - and Congress - could hang in the balance.

This administration and the current Grand Old Party leadership have leapt into action at social conservatives causes in the past (think Bush coming off vacation to sign the Teri Schiavo bill into law when he didn't even end his vacation for the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans; think Bush and Republicans pushing the gay marriage amendment earlier this year as a way to rally the social conservative base for the November midterms.)

But now, with less than 10 weeks to go before the November elections, they're blowing off social conservatives calling about the Plan B decision and pissing them off in the process.

You can see for yourself if you don't believe McClatchy Newspapers. Here's Tom McClusky, the vp for government affairs at the Family Research Council, writing about the decision on the Family Research Council website.

Much of the political strategy the RNC and the White House has employed so far going into the November midterms has been to try and rally the right-wing/social conservative base as much as possible. Polls show independents have soured on Republicans and Democrats are downright hostile to the GOP and the RNC/White House know that only a solid base turn-out can help them win close contests in House districts. Yet here they are alienating the very social conservative base they need by not trying to salve the concerns of social conservatives after the Plan B decision was announced. It sounds like all they had to do was put a high level official onto the phone with McClusky, Earll and other concerned callers and all would have been well with the base. Instead these social conservatives got a transcript of the preznit's words read to them over the phone and now they're thinking about suing over the decision.

It's almost like a replay of the Harriet Miers nomination last year. Once Bush settled on Miers to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, he wasn't going to change his decision no matter how much it pissed off the base. As it became clear just how much he had enraged the base, however, he eventually did cave and Miers was pulled back, but not until major damage was done to Bush's standing with conservatives. His poll numbers had already dropped into the high 30's after the Katrina debacle, but post-Miers his approval numbers plummeted to the low 30's. The administration has spent the last year trying to recover its standing with the base. The nominations of Roberts and Alito obviously helped. The push for the doomed gay marriage amendment was also meant to rally conservatives to the cause (though some social conservatives rolled their eyes at that and said "Too little, too late...why wasn't this done right after the election? Why do they always make these moves right BEFORE elections?")

But now, with the way they have handled the fall-out from the Plan B decision, they risk losing social conservative support at the exact time they need it. Sheer arrogance on their part, coupled with just a touch of incompetence. Rather than putting out a small brushfire before the election, they have inflamed the fire into a low-level burn. It's one more problem they have to deal with going into the midterms.

As a progressive, I am happy both about the Plan B decision and the way they have treated social conservatives looking for clarification about it. As a political junkie, I cannot understand why the Bushies pursue one policy for a long period of time for political reasons (i.e., block Plan B from over-the-counter sales), then reverse course and fail to handle the political fall-out from the decision. But I guess that goes to show that when you have an administration full of arrogant people, sometimes they can get tin-eared about a need for humility at the exact moment they need to show some.

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