Obama’s Compromise: Something for Everyone?

Here’s an old joke: Sometime in the 1930s, one Jew spots another Jew scanning an issue of Der Stürmer, the Nazi party’s official newspaper. He asks, “How come you’re reading that trash?” “Well,” says his friend, “all the Jewish papers talk about is how we’re being beaten up and oppressed. This one says we control the world. I guess I just needed a pick-me-up.”

Barely a day after the White House announced its revision of the guidelines ensuring free contraception for employees of religious institutions, both sides are looking for that pick-me-up. The New York Times credits “Catholic Democrats, liberal columnists and left-leaning religious leaders” with bending the will of the administration. According to the Times, protests from these former supporters forced a “fed-up Mr. Obama” to announce that “time was up,” and order the rules re-written. The story carries quotes from administration officials — “we were getting killed,” “all hell broke lose” — attesting to the Church’s power to induce shell shock.

This image of Obama, yielding to pressure from Planned Parenthood on one hand and time on the other, and allowing Kathleen Sebelius to roll out a political disaster, doesn’t do much to inspire confidence. In Slate, Amanda Marcotte offers an antidote in the form of a counter-narrative. “Obama,” she writes, “just pulled a fast one on Republicans.” The initial guidelines were just a feint that succeeded in provoking a “frenzy of anti-contraception rhetoric, all thinly disguised as concern for religious liberty.” Since the revisions “addressed their purported concerns,” Republicans “can either drop this and slink away knowing they’ve been punked, or they can double down” by condemning contraception openly.

Marcotte’s saying, in other words, that Obama won the same strategic and moral victory on birth control that he won over his birth certificate. In both cases, he spared a respectful nod for the rednecks a moment after they ran off the nearest cliff.

Both views have their merit. For better or worse, this is one of those controversies that offers something for everybody. Marcotte is correct that — as I observed Thursday — it’s given a soapbox to anti-contraception polemicists. If the Church is so dead-set against contraception that she’s willing to buck a socially just policy during an election year, her mouthpieces have to say why. But what Marcotte never figures on is how pundits are couching their arguments in terms relevant to people uninterested in the niceties of Catholic moral theology. Sick of gay marriage? Divorce? Ambiguous role expectations for the genders? Kim Kardashian? Kourtney Kardashian? There’s your culprit — the man in the latex hat! If sweeping solutions for complex problems held no appeal, our War on Terror wouldn’t be global.

Marcotte also underestimates Republicans’ ability to spin the issue exactly how they want to spin it. To a party that’s hung its hat on fears of European-style socialism — if not Stalinism or fascism — the very fact that Obama ever suggested any curtailment of religious liberty offers a large and solid hook. At the CPAC conference, Mike Huckabee said, of the president: “You have done more than any person in the entire GOP field, [than] any candidate has done, to bring this party to unity and energize this party as a result of your attack on religious liberty.” Far from a John Galt wannabe, Huckabee is the Republican Ann Coulter called “the one true Christian liberal” in America. If he says the party’s found a unifying issue, it has.

But even if the president’s initial move was a bad one, and his subsequent correction fearful, he could still realize some benefits — at least where Catholic voters are concerned. Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, no stranger to Tea Party-style rhetoric, has conceded that he revised guidelines represent “an openness to respond to some of our concerns” on the executive branch’s part. In a briefing circulated among the bishops, Dolan (along with Bps. William Lori and Stephen Blaire, and Cardinals Daniel DiNardo and Donald Wuerl) outlines problem areas in very precise language. The signatories are unhappy with the administration’s narrow definition of “religious institution,” for example. They are unconvinced that the costs of covering contraceptives will not, ultimately, fall to religious employers. This is not zealotry; this is not culture war. This is talking turkey at a dull roar.

Some of the other objections raised in the document — particularly the question of how an employer that is also an insurer can avoid offering “the objectionable coverage” — won’t be easy to overcome. Nevertheless, the brief uses the word “dialogue” for the exchanges the Obama administration expects to have with the bishops. In Catholic usage, dialogue is a non-adversarial practice — one meant, in fact, to stymie the construction of barricades.

In 2009, not long after Bishop John D’Arcy of Ft. Wayne-South Bend boycotted Notre Dame’s graduation ceremonies to protest Obama’s receipt of an honorary degree, Pope Benedict met with the president. Obama pledged to reduce the number of abortions in America; Benedict presented him with a copy of Dignitas Personae. It was at least the beginning of a dialogue, and it put a sliver of daylight between Obama and his harshest critics.

So far we’ve got energized and united Republicans, and a (perhaps grudgingly) legitimized Democrat. That leaves swing voters; what’s this business offer them? Maybe nothing. Questions of contraception and consicence aside, this upcoming contest may finally boil down to the economy, stupid.

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  • deiseach

    I don’t know, Max; as an interested, if puzzled, outside observer (non-American, one of those wimpy Europeans with socialised medicine), to me it seems that yes, the American healthcare system needs an overhaul but the proposed bill or act is a bit of a mess – too ambitious, too complicated, and with plenty of loopholes for everyone to argue “Well, this exception applies to my particular case”.

    However, if the proposed revision of the requirement for religious institutions to provide contraceptive and sterilisation cover is really what it appears to be – the employee don’t have to pay, the insurance companies will provide free cover – how stupid are the bishops supposed to be? There is no such thing as ‘free’; the insurance companies are not going to absorb the extra expense for the social good, and they’ll cover it by upping the premiums they charge everybody – which means the employers (that is, the religious institutions and affiliates and others who may have objections to providing such coverage) will still end up paying for provision, it will just be by the back-door. It’s a neat political sleight-of-hand, but it presumes that the bishops are just playing politics and that they don’t really object to contraception as such, they just need a figleaf of pretence.

    As for Amanda Marcotte, ever since I had the pleasure of reading her article on Pandagon about how anyone who objected to the cervical cancer vaccine for girls (and the way it was introduced in one particular state) was a religious bigot who wanted their daughters to catch a terminal disease and die in agony in order to punish them for expressing their sexuality – well, I don’t put much stock in any of her analyses (for my own part, I thought a governor, who had received campaign donations from a particular pharmaceutical company, mandating compulsory vaccination using that company’s vaccine – and no provision for other companies applying to have their vaccines evaluated and selected – in all the schools under his control could be construed as looking a bit dodgy, and I have no daughters I want to die for having sex). For someone so committed to no roadblocks in the way of free love, she doesn’t seem to extract much joy from it (in her way, she is just as much a zealot as those she excoriates).

  • Sarah

    I dont know, dieseach… For a “wimpy European with socialized medicine,” you hav things figured out pretty well.

  • sjay

    There is no such thing as ‘free’; the insurance companies are not going to absorb the extra expense for the social good, and they’ll cover it by upping the premiums they charge everybody

    The wrinkle there is the assertion that’s being made that the carriers incur less cost from contraceptive provision than they do from covering pregnancy. I haven’t seen the empirical data on that one so I can only offer it up as one direction the argument might go in. It raises the counter-argument regarding the long term costs of less births, etc.

  • Maria

    And therein is a concern itself. That BC is cheaper than pregnancy. How long before there are mandates on how many times a woman can get pregnant? Mandates that all who are covered must use BC? Slippery slope and all that.

  • Holly in Nebraska

    I’m always up for a good conspiracy. I read a little while back in Nation Review (sorry-forgot the guy’s name) an article that put forth the idea that the President was poking the hornet’s nest at the beginning of the election year so he could swoop in closer to November and rescind the whole thing, looking like the magnanimous hero–to get liberal Catholic and independent votes. I don’t know. The thing about conspiracies is that we have to assume people are smart enough to think of them and then pull them off.

    You wrote, “In Catholic usage, dialogue is a non-adversarial practice — one meant, in fact, to stymie the construction of barricades.” Sorry, but I disagree. The dissenter’s view of dialogue is always to pretend the barricades don’t exist. For dissenters, dissent can only end if they get their way. Dialogue is a method to keep pretending they might actually accept the Church’s position. They never intend to, which makes their desire for dialogue a fraud. I mean, how many more years do we have to discuss contraception and abortion (or women priests or any other like issue)? What has not already been said over and over again? All the arguments to be made have been made. For years. The Church’s acceptance of dialogue is an act of patience on its part; a desire for everyone to come to the truth.

    Speaking of dissent: “If the Church is so dead-set against contraception that she’s willing to buck a socially just policy during an election year, her mouthpieces have to say why.” Socially just? According to whom?

  • bones

    “Socially just? According to whom?”

    Why the joyful children we call our betters, whose idea of progress is tearing down what’s left of the ruins of Western Judeo-Christian civilization and then blaming whomever’s still standing once the fun is all over.

    The other day I heard a popular radio personality (up here in the Pacnorwest) opine that it was the Catholic Church that was responsible for all the bad things that gays have experienced over the years. Add to that the innumerable times I’ve heard that the Church is responsible for (a) Jihadism (those pesky Crusades you see), (b) any and all instances of child sex abuse, (c) the struggles of the idiot North American male (he needed his easy porn so that he’d not rape you see), and (d) AIDS. Each time I hear one of these accusations, I think of how my parish has spent the better part of 5 years trying to decide on building a parish centre/residence, the innumerable parish meetings and votes we’ve suffered. Do people really think we’re that effective? If only.