The Rick Santorum Moment
There are two reprehensible things that have happened this week. The first is the attack on Obama by the Catholic Church. It knew full well that Obama was going to release the regulations for the Affordable Care Act that would require insurance companies for Church affiliated institutions to provide contraceptive care. It was just a question of how it was going to be done and the Catholic Church jumped down Obama’s throat for not allowing the Church to distance itself as much as it would like from an insurance requirement it had no ability to face head on. The Church did not want to say it would not provide health care to those who work for it; it required, instead, what Obama came around to: that the Church would not be required to pay for contraception. Even Chris Matthews, who was caught up short by this issue because of his affection for the Church despite some of its history in the past generation, observed that money is fungible, and so money given by the Church to cover one thing goes to cover another thing as well. That is not the whole of it. The Church was still willing to sign the contracts that provide care even if those contracts will say, or the leaflets supplied by the insurance company will say, that contraceptives are covered. The Church just wants to keep its hands clean and so, as Gail Collins puts it, they want the government to do their dirty work. I take that to mean that the Church wants to say it believes that contraception is wrong but doesn’t want to have to say it too loudly because it knows that its members do not believe that. The Church is not engaged in a long term battle to restore Catholic families to their “allotted” seven children.
The Church could have dealt with this issue during Vatican II, but Pope John XIII died and Pope Paul VI was not interested in breaking ground on sexual issues, however much the ground had been prepared for doing so by numerous expert panels. He did not want to give in on clerical celibacy or sexual mores or contraception or abortion and the Church has had to reap the rewards of that anti-sex policy: fewer and fewer clergy and nuns, fewer and fewer parishioners who follow Church teachings on these matters, as well the child abuse scandals which follow from trying to impose celibacy on a modern clergy. I don’t know why the Catholic hierarchy is so set in its ways on this issue except because of the bitterness that is engendered because the members of the hierarchy have themselves led lives of celibacy. If we did it, then the next generation has to. This is the psychology of hazing and dueling scars, but with much worse consequences. It is hard to remember a time since the Inquisition when the moral stock of the Church has been so low.
At first, I thought that Obama was either crazy lucky or crazy like a fox. Who would have thought that the Republicans would fall for his game plan, which is to make the economy ever less the issue? Yes, data suggests that things are a little better than they were a few months ago. There is lower unemployment and a sounder stock exchange. But how long will that last? Employment numbers may go down over the summer and the stock market may take a plunge if the Europeans sneeze. No, the Presidents recipe for his reelection was to change the subject. He tried to do so by setting up to blame Congress if there was an economic dip. The failure to pass an extension of payroll tax relief would be the excuse to make the need to replace the Republican House as the key issue of the campaign, and he might have gone pretty far with that. Also, Obama could tout his foreign policy successes until there was a crisis more difficult to manage than Libya, and then an incumbent President tends to get the backing of the nation, no matter what his other failings. 9/11 provided that for George Bush even after Katrina. Watch the President do the best he can with a recalcitrant and evil Iran or even a Syria where no one wants to lose any American lives and where the United States is reluctant to cede any more authority over the Syrian government to Russia even if that delays regime change. The strength of the condemnation of the Soviet and Chinese vetoes by Rice and Clinton suggests we don’t want to trade one for the other.
But then along comes an unexpected gift. The regulations announced for the Affordable Care Act are applied to Church organizations that have a secular purpose, like training engineers or providing medical services to the poor. It has been long standing practice that religiously backed organizations cannot discriminate or otherwise violate the civil law. A church may choose to say only members of its own group can provide religious instruction, but religious organizations do not want to be in a position where they can only hire Catholics as janitors or as accountants. So what is the fuss?
The fuss is that this area of sexual practices is the only one where the law impinges on Catholic doctrine. The Catholic Church does not mind so much being held subject to child labor laws or zoning regulations or standard accounting practices. (Given their views on who owns a parish, I am giving them the benefit of the doubt on the last one.) The Catholic hierarchy makes noise only about what it cares deeply about. And the Church, as I have said, has been in a losing fight on the sexual front, and so needed to do something to save face.
And so we got trotted out for us, a few of the old bromides. This is a health issue, not a religious issue, said the feminists, and the Church said this was a religious issue because it is a moral issue, not a health issue. Both sides define their way out of engaging the other. Contraception is, of course, a health issue, in that pregnancy is a biological condition that impinges on the health of a woman and she needs medical attention to manage her pregnancy or to avoid pregnancy. But pregnancy is a sui generis issue. It is about how to manage a sex life, and so is in the moral realm of things, as sex issues have been since Adam and Eve. Why do feminists have to act as if they didn’t know that there were deep feelings involved here, and not just the practical issue of which allergy medication to take? And why do Church people act as if telling people to say “no” is all that has to be done with sexual matters, a position they do not take when talking about drugs, where they can be very compassionate to users and recovering alcoholics? The pragmatist in me tells me that people get confused by words and so tie themselves up in verbal knots that are unnecessary rather than just proceed to solve a problem.
But cutting a deal, which is what David Axelrod said, rather defensively, last Tuesday, is what he was waiting to see happen, was not good enough for the Republican candidates or the Archbishop of New York. They look pained at the intrusion of secularist Obama into this sensitive issue, and Liberals were running scared that Obama had given the Right an issue to run on.
But think about it. Every day the candidates talk about condoms is a day less they talk about unemployment, which is the most vulnerable part of the Obama case for reelection. Moreover, the number of people who care about restricting condoms is very few, given that even most Catholics use them at least once in a while. Fighting out the campaign on social issues would be to Obama’s advantage. People are to the left of Obama on social issues. He doesn’t want yet to call for gay marriage, when that is clearly something the public will live with. The only votes Obama will lose on supporting every woman’s right to get condoms for her boyfriend are votes he could never get, while undecideds may regard him as more sane than the rabid right is on social issues. The demographics are on his side. It is no longer Reagan-time in America.
The Obama people realized this by Tuesday night. Senators Boxer, Gellibrand, Murray, and some male confreres held a press conference on Wednesday that must have been cleared by the White House. They declared that this was a woman’s issue, not a religious issue, and would fight this one out. But by Friday, rather than continuing that engagement on an old battle front, the White House decided to move on, even if that was taken as a reminder by some Liberals that the White House could be rolled. It gave the Church a fig leaf even though the White House might have been on sound footing given that the Catholic Church has been so recently disgraced with the child abuse scandals that its moral luster has not yet been restored for non-Catholics, much less for many of its own adherents, that it is not in a position to sound high and mighty at the moment.
The White House decided, I think, to follow an even more basic political adage than the one to fight on familiar ground when your troops greatly outnumber the enemy. The winning side, in that case, would still get tinged with the public distaste for having fought over this ground one more time. Move on to something else. So Obama doesn’t want to go back to the culture wars. He prefers to deal with jobs and so will make a fight over extending payroll tax relief. That way he wins if he gets his way and he wins an issue if he doesn’t get his way.
For their part, however, the Republicans cannot shy too long from a social issue. It is where they live—not on economics or unemployment or cost cutting, but on the decline of the Western World into moral anarchy. And so they may turn after all to Rick Santorum as the candidate with the legitimate bona fides as a religious conservative, a mantle not easily claimed by Newt, the recent convert to sexual morality, who claims that being sixty eight has put that issue past him—well, only if you get credit for a weaker libido rather than a new set of principles. Mitt is hardly known as a defender of religious principles; his claim is that he knows how to fix an economy because he knew when to let businesses fail. That is implausible enough, but that is his claim.
I have wondered before why the Republicans take so long to get around to Rick Santorum as the anti-Romney. He is about as pure as you can get on the social issues, and who cares if he earmarked like crazy when that was the fad? He also appears the most human of the Republicans. No tics or grandiosity. Mind you, he is a terrible candidate for President. He is a mindless hawk and would make schools teach creationism. He wants to reindustrialize the nation. So does Obama, these days, as he is in favor of drilling for natural gas in North Dakota and any number of green jobs that require mechanical and technical abilities and wants to create an educational system that will provide the needed work force—mind you, not the educational system that produced him or all the other Black people who saw themselves as part of the Talented Tenth and who would devote themselves to the Classics or to history and law and not just to science.
Here is the second great disgrace of the past week. It lies with the Republican Party. They had tried to build up their credibility for so long now by going after the President on economic issues, sure that a President could not be reelected when there was such high unemployment. They did not have an alternative policy, only a promise to go back, as Obama characterized it, to the policies that had got us into trouble in the first place: low taxes on the rich and a deregulation of the financial industry. But they were sticking to that, and it might have prevailed. But now they have dropped that like a hot potato at ever so slight signs that the economy is improving. That might not be a winning strategy. So let us go back to the old standby wedge issues having to do with social customs and “values” that brought about the rise of the Reagan Democrats. We know at this very early date that we will lose and so let us throw a Hail Mary pass. Boy, not much gum shin in these guys. Unlike Grant, they did not want to fight it out all summer in front of Vicksburg. They wanted a quick cure.
Sure, there was an intersection of circumstances that led the Republicans to veer off in a new direction. There was the not to be taken too seriously victories of Rick Santorum in three non binding caucuses. There was the Catholic Church brouhaha. There was the improvement in job numbers. But what it tells you is that the Republicans are frazzled. They will say anything that seems to give them some electoral mileage. The Party as a whole is Mitt Romney. No long term principles, just short term rhetoric. And sooner and later, sooner for this election and later for the fate of the Party as it is now constituted, the American people get a sense of that and it leaves a very bad taste. But I have been prophesizing the demise of the Republican Party ever since Barry Goldwater lost. So much for that.