Sunday, 12 February 2012

Catholic Contraception Kerfuffle - Obama Trolls the Right

How in the world do you make your opponents make themselves look like religious zealots and use massively overblown rhetoric, while making yourself look like the adult in the room? While, I might add, risking nothing?

You need to be an expert in political jujitsu. You need to be able to have control of the narrative all along without showing your puppeteer's hand. You need to pick an issue where there is a 98% consensus behind you, that surrogates can point to, while your opponents rally against you with all the fire and brimstone at their disposal.

This is the recipe Barrack Obama put together in a recent debate over Catholic-backed employers providing contraception through health insurance.

Recap: 98% of Catholic women use or have used contraception. Obama says to Catholic hospitals "pay for contraception" (while, importantly exempting churches from the same rule). Catholic hospitals say "that's against our principles."

Republican presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney et al jump in gleefully screaming "this is an attack on religious freedom, this is an affront to America, this is war on the Catholic Church! And the constitution! And babies! We hate contraception! Obama will take your religion away!" The debate is had - pundits weigh both sides, while right-wing commentators can't believe their luck and join in, screaming "WAR ON RELIGION!".

Three or four days of this follow, with polls broken down and analysed showing slim majority support for Obama, who is cast as standing up for women, albeit politically foolishly.

Then, on Friday, the cake is baked.

Obama comes out and says "OK, this is a complex issue, but here is how everyone can win: women will get free contraceptive coverage on their health insurance through Catholic hospitals/scools/colleges, etc. BUT those institutions won't pay for it. NO. The insurance company will pay for it." Catholics (tending to be independent swing voters) feel they have been listened to, respected and served. Women (53% of voters) will get free contraceptive coverage on their employer's health insurance (and are made aware of this as policy in general). Insurance companies don't mind because the number of women actually at work in Catholic backed institutions in the US is minuscule and the cost of their contraception is not even a rounding error. Thus, a cent on the general cost of insurance will more than cover them.

Meanwhile, there's Obama being the compromiser - the reasonable guy - who the right has been screaming about. Romney et al look like a bunch of zealots who hate contraception (Santorum especially). They look unreasonable, paternalistic and anti-women - as, indeed, they actually are.

The brilliance of this political strategy does not end there. Through raising contraception and seemingly attacking religious freedom, Obama gave no-hoper Rick Santorum a bump in the polls. Conservatives rallied to his anti-contraception message (it's true, he is on record as being against all contraception - 99% of women use contraception - hence 'no-hoper'). He wins three (pretty meaningless)races, putting Romney on the defensive. Romney feels he has to ape Santorum's rhetoric - match his craziness - thus creating more videotape for the general election. Romney looks weaker having lost three states to a nobody, the conservative base have got all wound up for Rick Santorum, and so Romney's march to the right continues apace, with the middle, where general elections are won, a distant memory.

A brilliant piece of trolling by Obama and his team, aided (wittingly or not) by his HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who actually did all the dirty work.

Folks, this is a case of Deus ex machina.

PS So the insurance companies pay, eh? The evil insurance companies, eh? The one's that Obama's base hates and no-one can defend, eh? They pay, do they? How nice.

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