Barack Obama’s push to force Catholic institutions like universities and hospitals to include coverage for contraceptives in their health care plans brought about the kind of cleavage that was reminiscent of early culture wars. Catholic bishops, social conservatives and Republican presidential candidates united in framing it as a question of religious liberty and constitutional guarantees—with both getting trampled upon by an overreaching federal government. To them, this was a wedge issue in the contest against Obama.
While the right went ballistic, critics on the left felt Obama had started a needless battle on an issue that is both divisive and polarizing. By week’s end, Obama was already pitching a compromise that shifted contraceptive coverage from the institutions to the health insurance providers. The compromise did not produce unanimity, but it did bring the temperature down.
Could it be that Obama was using the right’s hair-trigger temper on religious issues against it? After all, the contraceptive controversy shifted the focus of Republican rhetoric away from the economy and to a cultural issue that plays well with the Republican base, but less so with independent voters. With improving economic numbers and Republican candidates unable to present a compelling alternative program, Obama is setting the agenda in a way that he has not done since the early months of his presidency.
Meanwhile, Mitt Romney spent most of the week reeling from a triple setback against the latest anti-Mitt candidate, Rick Santorum. He attended the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference, where he claimed to be “severely” conservative and pandered even more to the militant right. Romney also found himself on the defensive over a similar contraceptive provision in his own health care reform initiative when he was governor of Massachusetts. Romney may have won the CPAC straw poll and the Maine caucuses, but the conservative base is still not comfortable with Romney.
Moreover, two weeks away from the crucial Michigan primary, Rick Santorum’s campaign will likely be helped by the rekindling of the culture war. Santorum, to his credit and unlike Newt Gingrich—remember him?—is concentrating on issues and policies rather than going after Romney personally. And he is scoring some points in the process. Romney seems uncertain in his responses to Santorum and cultural issues are not his strong suit. Did this enter Obama’s calculation?
There is also evidence that Obama may have miscalculated and needlessly alienated some Catholic voters. Former Chief of Staff Bill Daley and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta are said to have warned against the move. But at the end of the day, contraception is not as divisive as abortion even if conservatives tend to lump the two together, and Catholics generally don’t follow the Church on this one. Obama knows this. The contraceptive compromise will likely pass the test, and the Republicans will have gotten distracted once again in a year where the economy was supposed to trump all other issues.