Hopefully, the fabricated “scandal” over Planned Parenthood will be wrapping up today. For the past few weeks, Republicans have been striking poses of outrage and disgust over a series of misleading videos created by the religious-right propagandists at the Center for Medical Progress. CMP claims the videos show illegal activity at Planned Parenthood, a claim that is, simply put, a lie. But Senate Republicans are performing outrage and pushing for a vote to defund Planned Parenthood.
Most congressional watchers expect the bill to fizzle out quickly—the Wall Street Journal calls it “a largely symbolic vote”—because Republicans don’t have the 60-vote majority to shut down a filibuster. Fox News optimistically describes the vote as a “first step in a renewed battle” to destroy the venerable women’s health organization. But this dog-and-pony show is less about defunding Planned Parenthood and more about giving Republican politicians a chance to reassure their base that they, too, hate the idea of low-income women obtaining affordable reproductive health care. If Republicans are smart, they’ll move on—at least until the next time the anti-sex police decide there’s some new fake thing they’re all outraged over.
Still, today’s vote is a big deal. The fact that it’s even happening at all, regardless of the outcome, is another alarming reminder of how much the rabid right-wing base has taken complete control of the Republican Party. Last week, the Shorenstein Center released a paper by New York Times reporter Jackie Calmes on the growing power of this base. “One of the realities here is that these people have always existed,” Norman J. Ornstein explained to Calmes. “But they were at the fringes, the John Birch Society types. Now, because of social media and because you have a culture of extremism that is not culled out more generally, they can move into the mainstream and actually hijack a major party.”
As both the Washington Post and New York Times editorial boards have pointed out, what is really disturbing about the Republican offensive against Planned Parenthood is its utter detachment from reality. As I reported at Slate when CMP’s first video came out, it appears to be a spinoff of Live Action, a group that has lost all credibility after years of making similar false claims about nefarious behavior at Planned Parenthood. We should all be alarmed that a bunch of charlatans can snap their fingers and get congressional Republicans to come crawling.
Unfortunately, some of the biggest panderers, such as Ted Cruz, are already floating the idea of drawing this fake scandal out even longer—calling for a government shutdown if the Senate, as expected, does not vote to take away gynecological care from millions of low-income women. As Paul Waldman at the Week points out, Cruz’s is an extremely bad idea. This wouldn’t be the first time that Republicans use the threat of a shutdown to pressure Democrats into caving to right-wing extremism; those threats have all failed, and created even more animosity toward congressional Republicans in the public at large.
No doubt Fox News and talk-radio hosts will demonize any Republican who doesn’t go all-out in this chapter of the war on women. But Republican leadership needs to draw the line somewhere, before the party is completely defined by its conspiracy-theory fringe.