Tucson Festival of Books: Rick Perlstein

As we mention in this week's print edition, I'll be moderating a panel of political writers—Rick Perlstein, Chris Mooney and Tom Zoellner—on Saturday at the Tucson Festival of Books. (You can get details here, but it's from 2:30 to 3:30 in Gallagher Theater and will be carried live on C-SPAN's Book TV.)

Perlstein is the author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America and Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. My friend Rodd McLeod, a Democratic strategist who often appears on the Political Roundtable with me on Fridays, says the two books serve as a history of the conservative movement in America and reveal how the current GOP political playbook was written.

Perlstein is also a columnist at Rolling Stone, where he recently penned a fascinating column about how conservative politics works these days. An excerpt:

This pattern is widely misunderstood by analysts. Republicans striking conservative positions are interpreted as "pleasing the base." But this isn't the main thing they're trying to do. Much more so, such moves are aimed at shifting the way even those who don't pay attention to politics — actually, especially those who don't pay attention to politics: "independents," "swing voters," etc. — understand the world. William Rusher, the National Review publisher and conservative movement activist who died last year, once said that the greatest power in politics is "the power to define reality." Obama never attempts that. Instead, he ratifies his opponent's reality, by folding it into his original negotiating position. And since the opponent's preferred position is always further out than his own, even a "successful" compromise ends up with the reality looking more like the one the Republicans prefer. A compromise serves to legitimize.

The recent contraception fight is a perfect example. The Obama administration announces that religious employers can't claim exemption from paying for their female employees' contraception. Catholic bishops go berserk: it's a violation, they say, of their church's "religious liberty." Two weeks later, Obama offers his compromise: these employees will still get their contraception, only now insurance companies would pay for it, which they would be glad to do, because contraception (as opposed to childbirth) saves them money.

Many progressives counted the outcome as a victory — and, by the logic Andrew Sullivan proposes, it was precisely that. Obama had "punked" the GOP on contraception, delivered a “knockout punch,” according to the outstanding and tough-minded feminist commentator Amanda Marcotte: "[Obama] drew this out for two weeks," she wrote, "letting Republicans work themselves into a frenzy of anti-contraception rhetoric, all thinly disguised as concern for religious liberty, and then created a compromise that addressed their purported concern but without actually reducing women's access to contraception .... With the fig leaf of religious liberty removed, Republicans are in a bad situation. They can either drop this and slink away, knowing they've been punked, or they can double down. But in order to do so, they'll have to be more blatantly anti-contraception, a politically toxic move in a country where [according to this study] 99% of women have used contraception."

But that's not what's happening. Instead, given an inch, conservatives are taking a mile.

Yes, they're doubling down. Professional buffoon and Catholic League head Bill Donahue called the compromise "the most serious infringement by the federal government on the rights of Catholics and others in 200 years." Obama was "adding insult to injury. He must think the Catholics are stupid." Catholic bishops backtracked from their original position that the compromise was a "first step in the right direction," and now call for outright reversal. "I think that our First Amendment religious rights are far too precious to be entrusted to regulatory rules," one bishop said. A hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on the contraception coverage rule didn't invite any women to testify because, after all, as Senator Mitch McConnell said, "This is about freedom of religion, it's right there in the First Amendment. You can't miss it — right there in the very first amendment to our Constitution." They were not being rigid, President Obama was — "rigid in his view that he gets to decide what somebody else's religion is." Then came Rep. Roy Blunt's plan to allow any employer, whether at a religious institution or not, to deny their employees contraception as part of their healthcare plan simply by stating a religious objection; Sen. Marco Rubio's version of the proposal would take away family planning coverage from Medicaid.