The Question That Changed Everything

Cristina Page

This election has proven that by broadening the discussion around reproductive health issues we are able to win.

Maeve Reston is the journalist for the LA Times who famously asked John
McCain aboard his campaign bus whether he supported mandating health
insurers that cover Viagra also cover contraception. His answer to her
question (or search for one) was caught on tape and became one of the
most memorable images (and most widely watched videos on YouTube for
that matter–with over 600,000 views) of the presidential race. Most
Americans were startled that McCain could not, or it seemed would not,
answer such a straightforward question on what for most was the most
common sense of issues.

It showed the power of asking questions the public doesn’t think need to be answered. Few knew McCain’s 30 year voting record against contraception.
The fact was, McCain couldn’t answer the question, for if he did the
answer would have to be "no." That would lead to a whole host of other
questions. By not answering, McCain did his best to defuse it as much
as he could. It could have certainly blown up in his face far worse had
it led to questions about his record on contraception which it,
mysteriously, never really did. But the question did have a dramatic
impact on his campaign as Maeve Reston, the LA Times reporter, recently
revealed in a "behind-the-scenes" account of her experience before and after she asked the contraception question She wrote:

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At the time of that July bus ride with McCain, there was broad
disagreement among his staff about whether the endless hours of
questions were helping his quest for the White House.

In the
driveway of the airport motel on the evening of the Viagra question,
McCain’s aides made an argument that would shape their attitude over
the next four months: If reporters were going to ask about issues that
they deemed irrelevant to voters, why should the campaign give them
access to the candidate at all? Salter told me I had made the case for those who thought McCain should curtail his exposure to the press.

McCain aide Brooke Buchanan sarcastically asked whether contraception
was next on my agenda. And Steve Duprey, the candidate’s usually jovial
traveling companion who often visited the press cabin bearing Twizzlers
and chocolate, twisted my question into what I interpreted as an
accusation of bias: "Are you going to ask Obama if he uses Viagra?"

the McCain campaign considered this issue "irrelevant to voters" was
certainly the thinking that led to the air quotes McCain used around
the words "health of the mother" in the final debate which again did
him no favors. (As Jim Ponoewozik of Time magazine explained,
"Dial group report 2: Um, Sen. McCain, women don’t like it when you put
‘health of the mother’ in air quotes.") That women are spending 68%
more in health care costs out of their own pocket than men is not
"irrelevant" for most women voters. Any campaign mastermind could
figure that out by reviewing the many polls taken on the issue. One
national poll indicated that 78% of privately insured adults (that’s
women and men) support
contraceptive coverage, even if it would increase their costs by five
dollars a month. Seventy-eight percent is not the block of the electorate you want to

This election proved that by broadening the discussion around
reproductive health issues we are able to win. Voters recognize when
politician veer off too far into their own important life decisions.
People are able to distinguish cartoonish and baseless attacks
(McCain’s attempt to portray Obama as an extremist on abortion was seen
as preposterous) from bad policies that could show up as horrendous
problems in our own lives (Bristol Palin’s pregnancy drew a bright
light on the abstinence-only education her mother supports.) McCain and
Palin’s positions on issues that Americans believe should be reserved
for our own individual decision-making were front and center. Palin’s
support of a policy to charge rape victims for pregnancy prevention
became a campaign issue. Talk about adding insult to injury–people got
that. These along with McCain’s stammering on the "Straight Talk
Express" helped to characterize the McCain-Palin ticket as extreme on
reproductive health issues.

But, from Reston’s point of view,
the contraception question was powerful in others ways too. The
disproportionate reaction it led to within the campaign was symptomatic
of the hubris and disconnectedness the campaign suffered from all
along. When 600,000 people take to the internet to watch a clip about
politician’s policy position it probably shouldn’t be classified as
"irrelevant to voters." But that block-headed thinking caused the
campaign to cordon off their candidate. By misinterpreting the question
as spurious attack rather than a genuine policy question, the campaign
made the fatal error of distancing McCain from the media and thereby
the American people.

Reston explains how the campaign
dramatically altered it’s relationship with journalists in the days and
months after she asked her question:

Later that summer,
the frequency of McCain’s news conferences dwindled to late-afternoon,
end-of-the-week affairs where he began calling more often on reporters
he didn’t know. We now watched from afar at most events — listening
for the few sentences that would change each day in his stump speech.
We would catch glimpses of him through the window of his SUV from five
cars back in the motorcade or watch him get off the plane.

the height of vice presidential speculation, we rushed the staff cabin
of the plane, frustrated that no one was around to address the rumors.
"What do you want, you little jerks?" McCain said, using his former
term of affection, before turning away.

On a recent Sunday
during a brief stop at a Virginia phone bank, I got unusually close to
McCain in the line of people waiting to shake his hand. Tape recorder
out and within a foot of him, I asked if he could talk about his new
economic plan, which he was to unveil that week. The man who once asked
me about my wedding date returned my gaze with a stare, shook the hand
of the strangers to the right and left of me and continued out the door.

McCain campaign will probably be studied for years to come for its
missteps and under-performance. No curricula on the subject will be
complete without a review of the Viagra-Contraception question. But the
most important take away is for reproductive rights movement. The 2008
election showed that the broader discussion on reproductive health
issues is what engages the public and frightens anti-choice candidates.
It’s not that we haven’t educated the electorate about the right
answers, it’s that we hadn’t been giving them the right questions. This
election changed all that.

This post was first published on BirthControlWatch.

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