At the January 7 ABC/Yahoo News Republican presidential debate, moderator George Stephanopoulos asked Mitt Romney if he shared Rick Santorum's belief "that states have the right to ban contraception." Romney mildly rebuked Stephanopoulos for the "unusual topic that you're raising," and said no, he does not share that belief.
From that one question a bizarrely intricate conspiracy has erupted and enraptured the conservative media. Seizing upon the Obama administration's January 20 announcement that health insurers (including church-affiliated organizations) would have to provide plans that cover contraception, allegations have sprung up that Stephanopoulos' question was "coordinated" with the White House as some sort of trap for the Republican candidates to fall into.
And we're not talking about the fringe here. Dick Morris, in a moment of perfect irony, accused Stephanopoulos of being a "paid Democratic hitman." Morris accusation and the broader conspiracy were picked up by Fox News, a former Bush administration official, and CNN contributor Erick Erickson. Now the Breitbart hive is getting in on the action:
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.
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.
I highlighted that sentence above because it's the lynchpin of the conspiracy, and it's easily proven false. Santorum was asked about a state's right to ban contraceptives on January 2 -- just five days before the debate -- by ABC's Jake Tapper. "The state has a right to do that, I have never questioned that the state has a right to do that," Santorum told Tapper.
Prior to that, Santorum talked about contraception quite a bit. He told NBC News on December 29 that contraception "leads to lot of sexually transmitted diseases, it leads to a lot of unplanned pregnancies, and it's not a healthy thing for people to engage in, you know, sex outside of marriage." He gave an interview in October in which he said: "One of the things I will talk about that no President has talked about before is I think the dangers of contraception in this country."
So once you view Stephanopoulous' question in the context of Santorum constantly bringing up contraception, and Stephanopoulos' ABC colleague specifically asking Santorum about contraception a mere 120 hours before the debate, it starts to look less like part of an impossibly complex game of 12-dimensional chess played by the Obama reelection team.
Unless, of course, Tapper and Santorum are also in on the conspiracy, and that interview was just a head-fake to give Stephanopoulos cover.
MORNING-AFTER REPUBLICAN DEBATE UPDATE: At last night's GOP debate in Arizona, CNN's John King brought up birth control as "the latest hot topic, which candidate believes in birth control, and if not, why?" As the candidates answered, Stephanopoulos' name was dropped.