The furor over the Obama administration’s contraception coverage decision has generated a spate of articles proclaiming the return of the social issues in the 2012 campaign. But while they’re being discussed more, I doubt that they’ll prove decisive. Unless something drastic happens between now and November, trends in employment and real income will determine the result.
Now comes the traditional “to be sure” paragraph.
To be sure, it’s possible to sketch a scenario in which the social issues matter a lot. Imagine a very close election the outcome of which hangs on a handful of large states in the mid-Atlantic and Midwest. These states have high percentages of Catholics who favor government programs when they help the middle class, lean toward cultural traditionalism, and maintain a visceral loyalty to the Church even when they disagree with it on specific policies. It’s no accident that Pennsylvania’s Democratic senator is pro-life and served in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps after college.
Still, countless surveys have placed the social issues far down on the list of public concerns in an election cycle dominated by worries over growth, jobs, deficits, and debt. They are highly salient in the base of the Republican Party, but no one should confuse those voters with the national electorate. If the economy improves fast enough to allow abortion, gay marriage, and religious freedom to emerge from the shadows, Obama will win anyway.
That said, the contraception episode was what the tennis commentators call an unforced error. If recent reports are accurate, the president knew that his decision would create a firestorm. During the extensive deliberations that preceded it, Vice President Biden and many others counseled compromise. (Months ago, the White House was aware of the compromise the president eventually accepted.) Surely Obama knew that Catholics are a large and strategically located swing vote. And yet, despite well-received campaign speeches in favor of religious liberty (and against tone-deaf secularism), as president Obama chose to treat mandatory contraceptive coverage purely as a public health issue. That may indeed be his considered view.
It may also reflect election-year imperatives of base mobilization, especially women and pro-choice groups. And apparently it was bolstered by a political cost/benefit analysis. Politico reports that the president was encouraged by David Plouffe, who reviewed private polling data and concluded that “the vast majority of Catholic voters, who don’t adhere to the church’s dictates on birth control anyway, wouldn’t punish Obama for his decision.”
But when the backlash from supporters as well as adversaries escalated (even loyalist Tim Kaine, now running for Virginia’s open Senate seat, pleaded for a shift), Obama unceremoniously abandoned the position he had staked out just days earlier. I can imagine the advice he got before this reversal: “Mr. President, we have to get this behind us so we can get back to the issues that are working for us. It’s better to take the hit now than to let this controversy linger.” Whatever the motivation for the initial decision, the latest shift can only be interpreted as a response to intense political pressure.
I’m sure Obama meant what he was saying about religion’s role in public life during the years preceding his presidency. But when the crunch came, it took a back seat to other considerations. We reveal ourselves most clearly, not when we declare the things we deem worthy, but when we are compelled to choose among them. All things considered, this has been an instructive episode.
William Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor at The New Republic.