What is Senator Scott Brown thinking?
This is not a rhetorical question. I really want to know: Why would a Republican hoping to be reelected in Massachusetts leap headlong onto Missouri Senator Roy Blunt’s slippery-slope?
In case you missed it, Brown cosponsored Blunt’s legislation allowing employers to limit insurance coverage for treatments they find objectionable on moral or religious grounds.
The legislation is an attempt to ride the controversy over an Obama administration rule requiring religiously affiliated institutions like Catholic hospitals and universities to offer health insurance that covers birth control, coverage those institutions already offer in 28 states. Bishops freaked out, and Republicans saw an opportunity: Casting themselves as champions of religious liberty, they’re trying to gut the Affordable Care Act.
President Barack Obama succumbed to their pressure, even though a majority of voters, including Catholic ones, are with him on the issue. He changed the rule to exempt even Catholic hospitals and universities from offering the coverage, as long as the health insurers they contract with offer and pay for it.
But his cave just energized his concede-nothing critics: Blunt’s legislation goes way beyond the bishops. It allows any employer, religious or otherwise, to opt out of Affordable Care Act rules requiring a minimum level of health insurance, freeing them to deny coverage for things they find morally objectionable.
So any Catholic employer could refuse to cover contraception, not just a Catholic hospital or university. A Jehovah’s Witness who believes blood transfusions are against God’s will could refuse to provide coverage for those. A Muslim who believes the polio vaccine is haraam could refuse to cover it for employees’ children.
And just like that, Blunt has brought us to Crazyland, a place far beyond the issue of contraception, not to mention common sense. What’s mystifying is that Brown has followed him there. During his short career in the Senate, Brown has avoided going out on limbs, refusing to take a position at all on some issues and siding with Democrats on enough of the others to avoid alienating the state’s moderate electorate. That strategy has paid off: In a recent WBUR poll, 48 percent of respondents said Brown has compromised “about the right amount’’ in Washington. A September poll found that, while voters believed that the GOP as a whole was too conservative, they saw Brown as “about right.’’
But Brown is definitely on a high outer branch now. Adding to the peril: He really needs women voters to win this election. In 2010, he beat Martha Coakley by narrowing the gender gap to just three points. Right now, Democrat Elizabeth Warren outpolls him among women, 48 percent to 41 percent, according to the WBUR poll, conducted by the MassINC Polling Group. The Blunt amendment won’t endear him to many of them.
Republicans and conservative Catholics will love him for it. But they were always going for Brown anyway. Brown’s strategists might have misjudged things here. He signed on to Blunt’s proposal last Thursday, when the battle was at its peak and before Obama expanded the exemption, winning over some critics.
But if Brown regrets signing on, he’s not showing it. Yesterday, he sent a fund-raising letter calling Warren an “oppressor,’’ like those who forced the Pilgrims to flee.
Can it really help Brown to suddenly go all Santorum on us? Yes, it will drum up his base and bring in bucks nationally. He seems to have decided that that money is worth more than the votes the Blunt amendment will lose him.
If he’s wrong, all the barn jackets in the world won’t help him.
Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.