The Wobbly Top

March 6, 2012 4:35 a.m.

Over the weekend I started writing an article about Rush Limbaugh, apologies and what we used to call “hang time” at TPM — namely, the period of time between a Republican politician’s rebuke of Rush Limbaugh and the inevitable abject apology. But of course, quite a lot has happened since then. Rush has issued his own non-apology apology; a slew of advertisers have bailed on his show; and it’s become standard for Republican politicians’ to criticize him at some level, something made much easier by his own nominal apology.

But there’s no making sense of this Limbaugh controversy without putting it into the larger scope of the high stakes gamble Republicans made in putting birth control at the center of the national election debate as the economy began to recede as a sure-fire election winner.There seems to be common agreement that as long as Republicans were able to angle this debate as a matter of religious liberty it worked for them politically. So nothing about contraception or there being something wrong about covering contraception but a narrow point about Catholic religious organizations not being compelled to violate an important religious teaching.

But that proposition was always inherently unstable. Because even from start you had this or that Republican backbencher going off script and saying, yeah, what about religious liberty? and while we’re on the topic, why are these single women having so much sex?

From the very beginning … Even to the extent that some political operatives wanted the issue as a religious liberty one, there’s no doubting that the ooomph behind the issue came from a deeper sexual politics. And more to the point handling this issue was always going to be messing with a very unstable compound because whatever the operatives thought, there’s a big, big slice of the conservative America that is still deeply engaged and aggrieved by issues the great majority of the country has long since litigated and decided on: namely, premarital sex, women’s control over both their sexuality and their reproductivity and pretty much everything related to it.

All of that brings you pretty quickly to Rick Santorum, Foster Friess and his aspirin method and Rush Limbaugh calling female law students ‘sluts’. You simply cannot keep it from going there. (And it’s because this lined up so closely to a party political gambit that Limbaugh’s been far harder pressed to handle this controversy than he has with one’s in the past.) In other words, it’s a bit like a kid’s top, the one you give a good spin to and it works great until the rotation breaks down and it spins out of control and falls down entirely. This issue works the same way. Get it spinning and it looks great. And you can keep whipping it for a while and keep it moving. But eventually it’s going to come apart and spin out of control. You just cannot avoid it. Which is pretty much where we are.

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