A Battle the President Can’t Win
His decision on Catholic charities makes Romney’s big gaffe look trivial.
The Wall Street Journal: February 4, 2012
What a faux pas, how inept, how removed from the essential realities of America. Yes, I’m referring to President Obama.
But let’s do Mitt Romney first.
He’s taken heavy fire for his statement, in an interview with CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, in which he said, “I’m not concerned about the very poor.”
Every criticism has been true. It was politically inept, playing into stereotypes about Republicans and about his own candidacy. It was Martian-like in its seeming remove from the concerns of everyday citizens. We’re in a recession here! It was at odds both with longtime American tradition and with rising conservative concern over the growth and changing nature of what used to be called the underclass.
Advice? Treat the mistake as an opportunity. First, admit the blunder. A political communications expert would add, “And move on.” But don’t. Use this mistake, and others—”I like being able to fire people”—as the basis for a true, thoughtful and extended statement that will allow people more deeply into the mind of Mitt Romney. Call it “Let me tell you about my gaffes.” Use it to deepen people’s understanding of your views not only on poverty but on the whole American picture.
Three reasons to do this. First, the networks, in their Romney gaffe reels, will have to use some of the lengthier address for the appearance of fairness. Second, it’s good to dwell on this problem now because Democrats want it to go away. That’s because they want to bring it back fresh in the fall, when people have forgotten it. The third reason has to do with still-widespread conservative unease with what Mr. Romney really thinks and why he thinks it. He should set himself to giving a fuller picture of his thoughts.
Which leads us to the Republican establishment, and how it feels about Mr. Romney.
That establishment is not what it was decades ago, when it was peopled by seasoned veterans who made decisions and got people in line. That’s gone. What has replaced it is a loose confederation of groups and professionals—current and former elected officials and their staffs, activists, the old party machinery, bundlers and contributors, journalists, radio and TV stars, mostly but not exclusively based in Washington.
The great myth of the election year is that they are for Mitt Romney. They are not. They are almost all against Newt Gingrich because they know him, they’ve worked with him. But they mostly do not love Mr. Romney.
The establishment didn’t get its candidate: Mitch Daniels or Jeb Bush, John Thune or Paul Ryan, Haley Barbour or Chris Christie. It is, secretly, as bereft as some of the grassroots.
Why doesn’t the establishment like Mr. Romney? Because they fear he won’t win, that he’ll get clobbered on such issues as Bain, wealth, taxes. Because when they listen to him, they get the impression he’s reciting lines his aides came up with in debate prep. Because if he wins, they’re not sure he’ll have a meaning or mandate.
But mostly because his insides are unknown to them. They don’t know what’s in there. They fear he hasn’t absorbed any philosophy along the way, that he’ll be herky-jerky, unanchored, merely tactical as president. And they think that now of all times more is needed. They want to reform the tax system and begin reining in the entitlement spending that is bankrupting us. They don’t read him as the guy who can perform those two Herculean jobs, each of which will demand first-rate political talent. And shrewdness. And guts.
Mr. Romney doesn’t have the establishment in his pocket. He needs to win it. All the more reason for him to get serious now. If he is serious.
This is the authentic sound of the establishment: At a gathering in Washington last week, I spoke to a grand old man of the party who enjoyed high and historic appointed position. “Where is the Republican Party right now?” I asked.
“Waiting for Jeb,” he said. Waiting for rescue.
That’s what Mitt Romney’s up against, not Newt.
But the big political news of the week isn’t Mr. Romney’s gaffe, or even his victory in Florida. The big story took place in Washington. That’s where a bomb went off that not many in the political class heard, or understood.
But President Obama just may have lost the election.
The president signed off on a Health and Human Services ruling that says under ObamaCare Catholic Institutions—including its charities, hospitals and schools—will be required by law, for the first time ever, to provide and pay for insurance coverage that includes contraceptives, abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization procedures. If they do not, they will face ruinous fines in the millions of dollars. Or they can always go out of business.
In other words, the Catholic Church was told this week that its institutions can’t be Catholic anymore.
I invite you to imagine the moment we are living in without the church’s charities, hospitals and schools. And if you know anything about those organizations, you know it is a fantasy that they can afford millions in fines.
There was no reason to make this ruling—none. Except ideology.
The conscience clause, which keeps the church itself from having to bow to such decisions, has always been assumed to cover the church’s institutions.
Now the church is fighting back. Priests in an estimated 70% of parishes last Sunday came forward to read strongly worded protests from the church’s bishops. The ruling asks the church to abandon Catholic principals and beliefs; it is an abridgement of the First Amendment; it is not acceptable. They say they will not bow to it. They should never bow to it, not only because they are Catholic and cannot be told to take actions that deny their faith, but because they are citizens of the United States.
If they stay strong and fight, they will win. This is in fact a potentially unifying moment for American Catholics, long split left, right and center. Catholic conservatives will immediately and fully oppose the administration’s decision. But Catholic liberals, who feel embarrassed and undercut, have also come out in opposition.
The church is split on many things. But do Catholics in the pews want the government telling their church to contravene its beliefs? A president affronting the leadership of the church, and blithely threatening its great institutions? No, they don’t want that. They will unite against that.
The smallest part of this story is political. There are 77.7 million Catholics in the United States. In 2008 they made up 27% of the electorate, about 35 million people. Mr. Obama carried the Catholic vote, 54% to 45%. They helped him win.
They won’t this year. And guess where a lot of Catholics live? In the battleground states.
There was no reason to pick this fight. It reflects political incompetence on a scale so great as to make Mitt Romney’s gaffes a little bitty thing.
There was nothing for the president to gain, except, perhaps, the pleasure of making a great church bow to him.
Enjoy it while you can. You have awakened a sleeping giant.
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