Sometime in the late 1990s, House Speaker John Boehner, then chairman of the House GOP Conference, shared with me one of his top political rules of thumb during a cigarette break in the Speaker's Lobby just off the House floor.
Explaining why Republicans had been unusually mum during a debate the Democrats were in the process of losing, Boehner said, "Never attack your opponent when he's in the process of committing suicide."
It made a lot of sense at the time, but it clearly won't be the guiding principle in the 2012 presidential campaign, which is shaping up to be quite a nasty affair. After Republicans committed multiple rhetorical blunders on women's health issues recently, President Obama had a rubbing-it-in fest when he addressed a group of several hundred politically active women on Friday. The GOP's position against requiring coverage of contraception in health plans was especially "illuminating," Obama told the Women's Leadership Forum in Washington, D.C. "It was like being in a time machine," he quipped.
"We've got governors and legislatures across the river in Virginia, up the road in Pennsylvania, all across the country saying that women can't be trusted to make your own decisions. They're pushing and passing bills forcing women to get ultrasounds, even if they don't want one," Obama said, adding, in a reference to a comment by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett: "If you don't like it, the governor of Pennsylvania said you can 'Close your eyes.' It's appalling, it's offensive, and it's out of touch."
The president's outrage was topped off by a large dollop of sarcasm: "For folks who claim to believe in freedom from government interference, it doesn't seem to bother them when it comes to a woman's health," he said.
It's not as though Obama needed to reassure women he's on their side. Multiple polls show him with a strong lead over Republican challenger Mitt Romney with women. A Quinnipiac poll last week gave the president a whopping 10-point advantage over Romney with that constituency, 49 percent to 39 percent.
"Women's issues are more than a matter of policy," Obama told the audience. "They're economic issues that impact all of us."
On the same day, the White House threatened to veto a bill passed by the House to stop a scheduled increase in student loan rates, charging that Republicans want to pay for the lost revenue by raiding funds from women's health programs. On the House floor, Boehner was beyond livid. Obama himself had proposed cutting the same funds, he said, or rather, shouted. "Now we're going to have a fight over women's health? Gimme a break!"
A break for Republicans? Not likely. Obama has found women's issues to be a very potent political weapon this season, suitable for use against his already prone opponents.