Follow Will: Facebook Twitter

A Yankee Notebook

March 19, 2012


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – The test is pretty simple. Is the program so critical, it's worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? And on that basis of course you get rid of Obamacare, that's the easy one. Planned Parenthood, we're going to get rid of that. The subsidy for Amtrak, I'd eliminate that. The National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities. – Mitt Romney

The dynamics of a primary campaign dictate that the candidates attempt to appeal to the fairly narrow segment of partisan supporters actually liable to vote. Even allowing for that, candidate Romney’s recent dismissive remarks about what he’d “get rid of” if elected are a classic example of pulling the trigger with your pistol still in its holster. Why in the world would anyone running for office intentionally alienate well over half of those likely to vote in the general election?

Simple, actually. With the only reasonable candidate (Jon Huntsman) out of the race for the time being, and outflanked on the right by two of the remaining ones, Mitt has to appeal to the ideological frames of the puritan wing of the Grand Old Party. If he secures the nomination, he’ll then follow Richard Nixon’s advice about running to the middle, relying on those of us currently outraged by such remarks to have forgotten them, or at least considered them less important than his qualifications as a businessman and a self-proclaimed member of the middle class.

It’s important to remember, as we look at Governor Romney’s remarks, that we here in New England live in a bit of a bubble. That's particularly true of Vermont, in the last election the second-bluest state in the Union. It’s often difficult for us to appreciate the mood, opinions, and beliefs of the rest of the country. Many Americans, for example, from Minnesota to Louisiana, swear that the President was not born in the United States; and in a recent poll, a majority of Mississippi Republican primary voters declared their belief that he’s a Muslim. Birth certificates be damned; his is phony. And Muslims, to many professed Christians, are an un-American intrinsic other.

Let’s take candidate Romney’s first item: “Obamacare, that’s the easy one.” That’s the easy one, all right – if you’re talking to folks who have health insurance through their employers, harbor a deep-seated fear of government, and don’t have kids in college or graduate school who can now remain on their family health plans until the age of twenty-six. But it’s not so easy a sell if you’re addressing members of the working class who simply can’t afford medical insurance, and put off visits to a doctor until they need critical care – at other people’s expense.

Where Mitt went off the rails the other day, as far as I’m concerned, was with his remark, “Planned Parenthood, we’re going to get rid of that.” That reminds me of the time I threw a rock at a hornets’ nest (and hit it!) while wearing a bathing suit. It’s pure pandering to “the base” - a well-named bunch, in my opinion. To begin with, Planned Parenthood is not his to get rid of; it’s a private organization. Second, well over half of all Americans favor its existence. Third, attempts to stifle it are clearly the spasms of a disappearing demographic: conservative old white guys. And hardly least notable, Planned Parenthood’s most important service by far is providing, free or at low cost, cancer screenings and contraceptive assistance to millions of American women who could not otherwise afford them, thus preventing who-knows-how-many unwanted pregnancies that will be terminated by abortion, legal or otherwise. I’ve long favored the Episcopal Church’s position on abortion: that it’s always a tragedy, but not necessarily the worst alternative in every situation.

Over half a century ago, my wife and I were married in that church, which stipulated that we visit a Planned Parenthood office for family planning information. Because we’d lived in different states before our wedding, we had to do the counseling well after it; and by that time we were already expecting our first child. But the treatment, information, and advice we received were an absolute eye-opener for me. Raised by the last of the Victorians, I was braced for moral judgment, implied or express, about young folks like ourselves who went ahead and started having kids with no particular plan. But everyone there was friendly, knowledgeable, and, most of all, helpful. We were able to schedule our next two additions, and, more important, plan no more.

To understand many folks’ reflexive opposition to Planned Parenthood’s major function – family planning – we need to look at our history. Founded by anti-English puritans, we’ve long conflated sex with dirt (even though, according to The Puritans and Their World, about 60% of Puritan weddings took place after successful conception). The Comstock Act of 1873 made it illegal to send “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” materials through the mail. Samuel Roth was convicted in New York in 1957 of mailing an “obscene, lewd, lascivious, [and] filthy” magazine. Note the inclusion of “filthy.” Mother and I were in France during the Clinton impeachment trial, and will never forget the amused Gallic shrugs and head-shaking at the ferocity of our witch hunt.

The old white guys in several state legislatures – probably our last generation of patriarchs – have recently passed laws that require women requesting abortion services to undergo a sonogram and “counseling” about the implications of their decision – as if they hadn’t agonized about it already. In response, Ohio State Senator Nina Turner has introduced an amendment to one such bill that would require men to submit to testing and counseling to qualify for a prescription for Viagra. Take note, Messrs. Romney and Santorum: The tide is rising ever more rapidly, and this is a very poor year, let alone a very poor century, in which to deny to over half the population of our country the rights they’ve obtained through so many decades of struggle.

Photo by Willem lange