The Obama strategy: let's talk about contraception

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 15, 2012

Dick Morris, who was once the hardball political strategist for President Bill Clinton, has an interesting take on strategic reasoning behind the Obama mandate. Morris—who has undergone both political and religious conversions since his salad days in the 1990s— argues that the Obama administration is trying to change the subject. For years liberals have used abortion as their leading “culture wars” issue. But with public opinion shifting toward the pro-life view, Morris argues, the Obama re-election team has decided to shift focus, and take a stand on contraception. On that topic, they feel comfortable, the public will support them.

Remember that GOP debate in New Hampshire, when George Stephanopoulos went to absurd lengths to insert the issue of contraception into the Republican primary contest? At the time his questions seemed ridiculous. If Morris is right, they make perfect sense: Stephanopoulos was playing out his role in the liberal strategic plan.

Morris also points out that the White House released its “compromise” proposal for the contraceptive mandate at a time when Sen. Rick Santorum was rising in the Republican polls. Santorum, a Catholic with a large family and an unquestioned devotion to Church teachings on the sanctity of life, is the presidential candidate who could be most vulnerable to attacks on the issue of contraception.

And so… guess what? Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post has dredged up an interview from 2006—that’s 6 years ago, if you’re counting—in which Santorum expressed his personal opinion that contraception is harmful to women. If you watch the video, you’ll note that Santorum says—not once, not twice, but three times—that he is not proposing to outlaw contraception, in fact that he has actually voted to subsidize the distribution of contraceptives. But most of Rubin’s readers probably won’t watch the video. They could be left with the impression that Santorum plans to outlaw contraception.

This past weekend, on national TV, Senator Santorum reiterated his stand that “women should have access to contraception.” Rubin could have quoted that statement, but that’s not how the political game is played during an election year. Personally, I regret that Senator Santorum ceded so much ground. I understand that, from a practical perspective, it would be politically suicidal for an American presidential candidate to call for a ban on the sale of contraceptives. Still Santorum could have said that he would not push for such a ban, and left it at that. There was no reason for him to pledge his support for the legal distribution of contraception. More to the point, there was no reason for him to vote for federal subsidies for contraception during his years in the US Senate. But these are my personal complaints against a particular presidential candidate. The larger point here is that the Obama administration is trying to shift the terms of debate: to move the goalposts in the middle of the game. I find the Morris argument compelling.


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: mdepietro - Feb. 18, 2012 10:52 PM ET USA

    I agree with you. I too wish Senator Santorum just left it that he would not ban contraceptives and left it at that. (I still think Santorum remains the best choice from a Catholic perspective) The larger point you make is correct. I think Obama fears Santorum more than Romney. It will be harder to portray Santorum as a rich corporate shill. I don't think Obama will be able to focus on contraception in the general election. The game is to terrify Republicans now, get Romeny in Nov, and beat him

  • Posted by: marianjohn7861 - Feb. 18, 2012 5:48 PM ET USA

    In the army of the battle for truth, the bishops are the leaders. I call them the "Natural Law"men. They guard the part of our country's constitution that cannot be legislated by the congressmen or judged by the justices or litigated by lawyers. God's natural law has it's own inevitable consequences for not abiding by it.

  • Posted by: LACY - Feb. 17, 2012 10:32 PM ET USA

    Planed Parenthood has framed the argument by claming ninety five percent of Catholics use birth control knowing that the pill developed by most pharmaceutics dose not always stop ovulation but does cause a chemically undusted abortion after the egg is fertilized. What they infer is that moor abortions acquire in church at Mass then in the abortion chambers of Planed Parenthood

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Feb. 16, 2012 12:54 PM ET USA

    The only army we have left is the truth. This is the moment for the Bishops to start mustering it.

  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Feb. 16, 2012 11:48 AM ET USA

    I have believed from the first that the Obama machine set out to break the back of the Catholic Church. It could be seen from Biden, Pelosi, and every other unfaithful/quasi-faithful Catholic Obama could enlist or appoint. I know I'm not especially observant. What I don't understand is the reluctance of Bishops and those in the Catholic media to point this out... BWC

  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Feb. 16, 2012 6:01 AM ET USA

    Phil, you seem uncharacteristically slow to figure this out. Where is the gaping hole in the church's wall? That is easy -contraception. We have been building to this moment since the wholesale rejection of humanae vitae in 1968. Obama has almost the entire country on his side on this issue. The bishops don't have an army, or a corps, or a division on their side, more like a platoon. Not many, but enough to resist and succeed.