Mike Huckabee is defiant. Faced with a torrent of criticism for comments he made during his address to last week’s meeting of the Republican National Committee, the talk-show host and former Arkansas governor isn’t backing down from saying Democrats want women to think “they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government”—a reference to the ObamaCare mandate that effectively treats free contraception as a constitutional right.

“I am not going to roll over and apologize,” Huckabee said in an interview on John Gibson’s Fox News Radio show. “Without a doubt this was a way to knock me out early by the left.”

Many conservatives came to his defense, claiming his critics are manufacturing a controversy over his words that distorts his meaning. They point out Democrats are trying to change the subject from a discussion of ObamaCare and a paternalistic liberal philosophy that reduces citizens to dependency to one about a nonexistent Republican war on women. They’re right about that. But it doesn’t matter.

Huckabee’s comments on ObamaCare are accurate, but by using words that obscure his principled and constitutional objections to the mandate he made it appear that he and other conservatives want to control women’s sexual behavior. In doing so he handed liberals the same kind of gift that Rush Limbaugh gave them in 2012 when he called Sandra Fluke—the law student who testified before Congress about her belief that she was entitled to free contraception—a slut. That single word—trumpeted throughout the mainstream liberal media as an unconscionable attack on a courageous young woman for speaking her mind—altered the national discussion from one about the administration’s outrageous onslaught on religious freedom through ObamaCare to a debate about Republicans who were portrayed by the mainstream liberal media as seeking to deny women the rights only Democrats would “protect.”

Rather than simply defending Huckabee, what conservatives should be doing instead is asking themselves why some of their most prominent speakers are so slow to understand how gaffes such as these undermine the very cause they seek to promote. The defeat of an oppressive government regulation and giveaway will not be achieved by language that seems to attack the women who wish to avail themselves of such an entitlement.

Let’s be clear that the distortions of Huckabee’s words, just like the similar treatment afforded Limbaugh, are unfair. Neither Huckabee nor Limbaugh was seeking to oppress women or deny them any rights. Limbaugh erred by attacking Fluke personally; his correct opposition to Fluke’s disingenuous advocacy of free contraception could easily have been made in a way that didn’t insult the student. But while Huckabee avoided singling out any specific woman, his statement that without ObamaCare’s help women may be unable to control their sexual urges, he made the same mistake as Limbaugh.

That’s a shame, because the content of his speech was otherwise a laudable description of the inherent dangers of an administration policy that sees all women as the mythical “Julia” of the 2012 Obama campaign commercial whose life story could be told through the government programs, including ObamaCare, that funneled benefits to her. Rather than waging a war on women, conservatives are, as Huckabee rightly pointed out, fighting for their empowerment and against a paternalistic Democratic mindset that sees them only as victims or grateful recipients of big-government largesse.

But politics is, as Huckabee ought to know by now, a contact sport. Conservatives who have no compunction about exploiting gaffes by liberals cannot cry foul when liberals play the same game.

Conservatives have an excellent case against the ObamaCare mandate that forces all employers—including religious institutions and businesses owned by people of faith—to pay for services that offend their consciences and are directly contrary to their religion. To claim that opposition to the mandate is merely an attempt to deny women the right to seek any contraception is a lie. One needn’t share the beliefs of such individuals to understand that a government mandate of this kind is an attempt to roll back First Amendment rights of religious freedom. But when leading conservative figures use language that is open to interpretation as demonizing women who use contraception, that makes the Democrats’ case for them.

The same thing happens when conservatives who rightly oppose late-term abortions and support sensible restrictions on the procedure, which are supported by the vast majority of Americans, discuss abortion and rape in ways that are clearly offensive and allow liberals to blast them as Neanderthals who hate women.

There is no Republican war on women. Conservatives speak for the majority of Americans when they oppose ObamaCare. There is no constitutional right to free contraception and it is no offense to women to state this just as it is not an insult to women to oppose the butchery of viable infants that takes place in the name of abortion rights, as we saw in last year’s Kermit Gosnell murder trial.

But it’s no use whining about unfair liberal pundits distorting their words when conservatives themselves employ arguments that place the focus on sexuality rather than the Constitution and individual rights. That’s not evidence of a Republican war on women. It is, however, indicative of an outbreak of hoof-in-mouth disease among Republicans. Far greater discipline is necessary when anyone on the right discusses this explosive issue. Off-the-cuff comments such as these can spell disaster in November, in a year when Democrats have an uphill fight against the backlash of the millions hurt by ObamaCare. Conservatives must learn from Huckabee’s self-inflicted wound and ensure that such discourse doesn’t become another epidemic of the kind that helped Democrats win in 2012.

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