picking a fight with Catholics

Well-meaning left-leaning commentators are on the television, wringing their hands and saying that this whole issue surrounding contraception and the Catholic church has been “screwed up” and should have been handled differently. “If the President knew that there would be resistance to this, why didn’t he set the stage a little better, and get the word out there to let people know what this is all about?” asks Chris Matthews. A lot of people are looking at the backlash from the right wing and the bishops, and thinking, “Shouldn’t the Obama administration have done something to avoid, or at least lessen, this fight?”

I give President Obama more credit than that: I think all of this is exactly what he wanted. Or at the very least: it’s exactly what some people in his administration wanted.

First, think about the alternatives. He could have simply granted the exceptions for any group that asked for it, which would have made women’s rights groups furious. The president is already too moderate for the tastes of some liberals, and is seen by many as not being aggressive enough in fighting for liberal values. Many liberals think that he “didn’t really try” in the health care fight, because he didn’t put a single-payer option on the table. Acquiescing to the Catholic church would have reenforced this perception of him, and turned off his base even more.

Or, he could have spent a lot of time and energy educating people, trying to appear reasonable, trying to call meetings and convince people to come over to his own position. But realistically, does anybody think that would have worked in today’s political climate? Today’s Republican party has been completely unified in only one thing for four years now, and that is being against anything that President Obama is for. It doesn’t matter how much the president “softened” or “educated” or tried to convince them, the reaction of the conservatives would have been the same. If you think that there is anything that the President could have said to prevent conservatives from calling him some kind of “radical secularist”, then you haven’t been paying attention to politics lately.

Second, think about the reaction. There may be some very sensible, very centrist, and very rational people who object to the stipulation that Catholic organizations pay for health insurance that provides the option of contraception. But those people will not be the loudest.  Issues like this provoke the loudest opposition from the absolutely most extreme, most crazy religious advocates.

Any calm and rational-sounding objection in the media right now is being completely obscured by screams that this is exactly like Hitler’s oppression of the church in Germany, it’s exactly like the French Revolution, and that pretty soon the government will outlaw religion altogether and you better be terrified. Any moderate person who isn’t completely attuned to politics, who happens to start paying attention now, will more likely be turned off by the pure craziness of the loudest conservative opposition than by the technicalities of a law about insurance and contraception.

Finally, think about the ultimate effect for the Democratic party. On the left, we like to talk about the fact that right-wingers use “dog whistles” to gin up their base. Usually it’s something racist or xenophobic, to get the right-wing crazies really excited and motivated. We know that conservatives do this because this is what activates their voters: people on the extreme right wing get energized to go out and vote when their emotional buttons are pushed, and their emotional buttons are things like racism, homophobia, xenophobia, flag burning, and  so on.

But let’s not suffer under the illusion that the left wing doesn’t have their crazies, as well. And left-wing crazies have dog-whistles that work for them.  And the left-wing dog-whistles include (among other things) women’s rights and Christians trying to force their faith on people. Making this into an overt, explicit fight is exactly the kind of thing to get liberals–not Democrats generally, but liberals–hopping mad and ready to rally to the poll booths to express it. “Did you hear that the church is trying to take away rights from women?” is red meat for liberals in the same way that “Did you hear that communists are trying to take away your guns?” is red meat for conservatives.

But the best part, the truly brilliant part, is that the media can still (quite innocently) be bamboozled into thinking that this all was just a strategic misstep. The White House can get away with bringing front-and-center a fight that will absolutely drive its base howling mad–a fight over the rights of women, a fight against the archaic and oppressive Catholic church–and nobody is even accusing them of “ginning up the base.” Or, the few that are, are also the people who are declaring that the President is trying to make the United States into Communist Russia… so nobody is taking them seriously, anyway.

No, this fight was no ham-fisted mistake: this was brilliant, brilliant strategy.