More grist for the campaign mill

Really, what’s a fellow to do? Is this how classic ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ comes to be? President Obama and his team, as they plan for his reelection bid, are now being told quite emphatically, that they will have a highly incensed Catholic population to deal with come November, if the administration holds firm on its recent decision mandating Catholic institutions to provide coverage in their health plans for contraceptive services for female employees free of charge. It seems highly unlikely that the president and his advisers would have underestimated how stout the pushback would be to such a policy move, given the well-known intensity of the Catholic establishment’s reaction to any trampling on core church dogma.

The official word is the administration was simply following the professional recommendation of the non-partisan Institute of Medicine. On a practical level, one would assume that somewhere in the run-up to the administration’s announcement was the calculation that the inevitable uproar from the church leadership would be more than offset by rank and file Catholics solidly opposed to contraceptive measures being denied women, more so the lower income demographic. Not to mention the view among non-Catholics, both in the general population and those directly affected as women employed at the institutions in question.

To what extent the monitoring of polling on the issue may have factored into the president making this call is anybody’s guess. But the stakes being what they are, a close watch on polling data absolutely figures to be in the equation now that the die has been cast. The history of measured rank and file Catholic sentiment over the years would lend encouragement to the prospect of the anti-leadership position prevailing in this instance as well. On the contraception issue, as in others like celibacy of the clergy and the ordination of women, the church’s dictates have tended to be at variance with a majority of its flock. Some early polling on the church’s reaction to the new contraception coverage rules suggests a continuation of the trend.

Coming right on the heels of another matter in which the Catholic Church was an interested party – the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation’s announcement of discontinuing funding to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer services, then subsequently reversing that decision – it bears watching whether the tidal wave of backlash being threatened by the Catholic hierarchy will induce a similar pirouette from the Obama administration. A flat-out rollback of the administration’s ruling is hardly in the cards.

In this revved up political season, the president’s opposition of course can’t get enough of this wedge-issue dividend. One wouldn’t be surprised to see Mitt Romney, whose chameleon credentials grow ever stronger, come out swinging about how wrong the Obama policy is, despite life in another universe that seems altogether alien to today’s packaging. Newt Gingrich, unabashedly portraying himself as the Republicans’ last best hope and ultimate social conservative alternative to Romney, will surprise no one with the spiel he will assuredly make to extremists for whom any “meddling” by the state in things religious represents another call to arms.

So, predictably, will the Obama administration’s move to close loopholes in its determination to prevent unwanted pregnancies be framed by the opposition. The reaction in the social conservative sector is a given. In terms of his reelection, Obama need not concern himself with the usual noises emanating from there. His campaign’s focus will clearly be in whatever ruckus is raised by more mainstream pockets of resistance. One sub-group among Catholics that could be a potential source of worry for the Obama camp is Hispanics. The fact that the Hispanic vote could be key in a number of swing states would not have escaped the attention of either the president or whoever his Republican rival turns out to be. The Republican team and their surrogates in deep-pocketed super PAC’s, will undoubtedly be making every conceivable pitch, and then some, for that sea of religious conservatism resident in the Hispanic culture. Obama and the Democrats hopefully will have the smarts to roll out marketing strategy that assigns to the Hispanic bloc the kind of concentrated effort it will demand.

It’s early yet in the mad scramble for the White House. It’s a pretty safe bet that we’ll see down the road a lot more that turns heads, makes eyes pop and all the rest. There’s every likelihood, for example, that the Supreme Court-sanctioned presence of super PAC’s in this election will be every bit as reprehensible as some of us have feared they would be. But that’s another story. The upcoming buildup of grist for the campaign mill shows promise of being formidable indeed. Staking an early claim as premium battleground reward is the line in the sand the Catholic high command has pledged on the contraception issue. Even with talk from within the administration, of granting extensions to allow time for, one gathers, some possible tweaking of the mandate process, this doesn’t look to be going away quietly. But then, waiting around a corner to do some blindsiding that would knock contraception and the church clear off the table, could be who knows what.

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