Stephanopoulos and the Social-Issue Setup

When the Republican presidential candidates gathered in New Hampshire on Jan. 7 for the first debate of 2012, former Clinton communications guru George Stephanopoulos surprised Gov. Mitt Romney with a question about contraception that no one–on stage or in the hall–had expected:

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The question targeted Sen. Rick Santorum, who was then–despite a strong showing in the Iowa caucuses–still considered a distant long shot for the nomination. Romney won praise from conservatives for pushing back, calling it “unusual” and “silly,” noting that no state or candidate (including Santorum) wanted to ban contraception, even if states had that right.

The issue of contraception had not come up, neither in the Santorum campaign or in general. Two weeks later, the Obama administration reiterated the now-infamous ObamaCare mandate requiring religious social institutions and charities to insure their employees for contraception and abortion-inducing drugs. Catholic leaders and other religious authorities opposed the move, while the Obama administration dug in, offering an “accommodation” that changed nothing of substance and merely ensured that the controversy would continue.

What some pundits described as a misstep by Obama–given the number of Catholic voters in key swing states–may also have been an attempt to rally his political base. Regardless, the focus of the 2012 election suddenly shifted towards social issues, helping Santorum overtake Romney in the polls and giving the media a chance to make a spectacle of his social views–a carnival of ridicule eerily reminiscent of the most hysterical attacks on Sarah Palin in 2008.

Given the fact that Stephanopoulos was known–at least early in the Obama administration–to participate in daily conference calls with key White House staff and Democrat strategists, it is reasonable to ask whether his question on contraception was a setup–done with advance knowledge of the Obama administration’s intent to make contraception a key political issue, and of the Obama campaign’s intent to make Santorum’s social views a key target for attack.

Already, tonight’s CNN debate is expected to focus on Santorum and his socially conservative ideas. The media and the Obama administration have set the agenda for Republicans on issues that were nowhere near the forefront at the beginning of the year. That may backfire, given the fact that the contraception debate has excited social conservatives and highlighted, for other voters, Obama’s perfidious contempt for the constitution and the First Amendment.

Yet the rise of the contraception issue as a weapon against Santorum and other candidates also suggests the possibility of an alarming degree of coordination between the debate moderators in the Republican primary and the Democrat political handlers working to ensure their defeat in the fall.

It’s no wonder Republicans applaud candidates who attack the media: they see journalists–often correctly–as proxies for the administration and its radical agenda.