WASHINGTON — Before Barack Obama can defeat his opponents he must first be rescued from his friends.
Some of them are now suggesting that his contraceptive mandate on religious institutions was a skilled political stratagem. "I've found by observing this president closely for years," argues Andrew Sullivan, "that what often seem like short-term tactical blunders turn out in the long run to be strategically shrewd. And if this was a trap, the religious right walked right into it." Religious conservatives are now identified, he says, with "opposition to contraception." Republicans have achieved "fusion with the Vatican." Obama is evidently playing the very deep game.
Consider the implications of this praise. It means that Obama assaulted the core beliefs of some of his fellow citizens in order to lure them into politically self-destructive behavior. The president is willing to trifle with the constitutional rights of religious people in order to get a rise out of them. In this scenario, Obama is a Machiavellian monster, undeserving of high office.
But I don't think Sullivan's indictment is accurate. These events have all the hallmarks of an epic White House screw-up. The policy resulted from an internal debate in which the vice president and the chief of staff took the other side. Liberal true believers won out. The announcement was fumbled. The White House was shocked by the breadth and intensity of opposition.
It is difficult to imagine that Obama desired criticism from Democratic officeholders and candidates, including a former head of the Democratic National Committee. Or a bridge burning with Catholic bishops shortly before an election. Or a promise of civil disobedience from the most prominent evangelical pastor in America, Rick Warren.
The initial policy was a disaster. The partial retreat was more skilled. Obama's goal was not resolution but obfuscation. The contraceptive mandate was shifted from Catholic employers to insurance companies. Instead of being forced to buy an insurance product that violates their beliefs, religious institutions will be forced to buy an insurance product that contributes to the profits and viability of a company that is federally mandated to violate their beliefs. Creative accounting, it seems, can cover a multitude of sins.
But an indirect requirement is less aggressive and humiliating than a direct one. This has become just another in a series of business mandates under Obamacare — motivating eventual repeal instead of civil disobedience. And religious people could easily respond to overreach with overreach. Some conservatives argue that any business — not just religious hospitals and charities — should be able to withhold contraceptive coverage because of the beliefs of its owner. This is probably a bridge too far in our current cultural and political context. The defense of religious freedom unites. Opposition to contraception divides.
Obama has partially defused a crisis of his own creation. But some effects of his blunder will linger.
First, Obama has made clear who is part of his ideological coalition and who is not. Discussions on the structure and restructuring of the contraceptive policy were conducted between the administration and pro-choice and feminist groups. The people most directly affected by the mandate — particularly the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops — were not in the room. The administration engaged in no substantive consultation with Catholic bishops, who were only called to receive pronouncements. Interest group liberalism is alive and well in the Obama White House.
Second, the administration has consistently adopted and applied a view of religious liberty so narrow it imposes almost no limits on federal action. In the Hosanna-Tabor Supreme Court case, the Justice Department argued that there should be no "ministerial exception" at all — a contention the court dismissed as "amazing." The modified contraceptive mandate still presupposes that religious liberty only applies to institutions whose primary purpose is worship, leaving every other religious institution vulnerable to future regulation.
Third, Obama has surrendered his main political appeal to religious voters from the last election — his embrace of faith-based social service providers. Any attempt to repeat this outreach will seem absurdly disconnected from reality.
Fourth, with a single miscalculation, Obama has managed to unite economic and social conservatives in outrage against government activism and energize religious conservatives in a way Mitt Romney could never manage. Culture war debates in America are evenly divided. But the objects of culture war aggression do not easily forget.
If Obama is playing a political chess game, he has just sacrificed his queen, a rook and all his bishops. It would have to be a deep game indeed.
Michael Gerson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org