Gerson’s Spin on the Contraception Coverage Mandate

The contraception coverage mandate saga clearly isn’t turning out to be the anti-Obama wedge issue the president’s opponents initially thought it might be. But acknowledging that is very, very hard for them, as evidenced by the latest WaPo column from religious conservative stalwart Michael Gerson.

The headline assigned to Gerson’s column sure doesn’t indicate any second thoughts: “Obama’s epic blunder on birth-control mandate.” Nor does his final sentence:

If Obama is playing a political chess game, he has just sacrificed his queen, a rook and all his bishops. It would have to be a deep game indeed.

In between, Gerson grudgingly concedes that Obama has “partially defused a crisis of his own making.” He brushes aside assessments that he and his friends the Bishops walked right into a trap with the claim that to suggest the president so lured them would mark him as a “Machiavellian monster, undeserving of high office.” Since he would not want to accuse the president of that, Gerson insists the administration’s course of action must have reflected an “epic White House screw-up,” in which Obama betrayed his fidelity to “liberal true believers.”

After savoring the “breadth and intensity of opposition” to the original policy, which “shocked the White House,” and somehow failing to notice the public opinion research showing that a majority of Americans, and of Catholics, supported that original policy, Gerson turns to every conceivable theory of why the issue will still be a disaster for Obama.

Gerson theory #1 is just a repetition of the empty claim that the dispute is one of Catholics versus “pro-choice and feminist groups,” with Obama picking the wrong side. It’s not clear why pro-choice and feminist Americans aren’t a legitimate part of a Democratic president’s political coalition, and again, Gerson assumes the Bishops speak for Catholics on the subject, which they demonstrably don’t.

Gerson theory #2 involves the baleful wrath-to-come from an allegedly narrow construction of religious liberty as presented in a Justice Department brief in a tangentially related court case that has already been decided. If he can figure out how to turn that into campaign material, I will be very impressed.

Gerson theory #3 is the most interesting:

Obama has surrendered his main political appeal to religious voters from the last election — his embrace of faith-based social service providers. Any attempt to repeat this outreach will seem absurdly disconnected from reality.

You know, I don’t really blame him for wanting to ignore the single most significant political development in this whole saga, the endorsement of the administration’s modified mandate by the president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, Sr. Carol Keehan. But doing so makes Gerson seem a lot more “absurdly disconnected from reality” than the president.

Lastly, Gerson resorts to the lowest-common-denominator argument of those who can’t really claim their side has won any battles for public opinion: the conservative base has been mobilized!

[W]ith a single miscalculation, Obama has managed to unite economic and social conservatives in outrage against government activism and energize religious conservatives in a way Mitt Romney could never manage. Culture-war debates in America are evenly divided. But the objects of culture-war aggression do not easily forget.

That’s interesting, since the prevailing opinion of the experts, left, right and center, up until now has been that Obama would be the unambiguous beneficiary of any development that turned the 2012 elections from a referendum on his stewardship of the economy into a revival of ancient culture wars.

But it’s Gerson’s assumption that he and his allies are the “objects of culture-war aggression” that is the most dubious claim in this dubious column. At a time when Republican politicians around the country and in Washington are raising heaven and earth to restrict or ban abortions and reduce access to the contraceptives on which nearly all Americans rely, and promising anti-choice activists they will finish the job once fully in power, it’s revealing that he thinks Obama will be perceived as the “aggressor.” Michael Gerson is no fool. That he says so many foolish things while trying so very hard to spin this incident into a disaster for the president speaks volumes about the delusions of the contemporary religious right.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.