Why Obama Would Be Glad if the Culture War Is a Major Election Issue
The furor over the Obama administration’s contraception coverage decision has generated a spate of articles proclaiming the return of the social issues in the 2012 campaign. But while they’re being discussed more, I doubt that they’ll prove decisive. Unless something drastic happens between now and November, trends in employment and real income will determine the result.
Now comes the traditional “to be sure” paragraph.
To be sure, it’s possible to sketch a scenario in which the social issues matter a lot. Imagine a very close election the outcome of which hangs on a handful of large states in the mid-Atlantic and Midwest. These states have high percentages of Catholics who favor government programs when they help the middle class, lean toward cultural traditionalism, and maintain a visceral loyalty to the Church even when they disagree with it on specific policies. It’s no accident that Pennsylvania’s Democratic senator is pro-life and served in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps after college.
Still, countless surveys have placed the social issues far down on the list of public concerns in an election cycle dominated by worries over growth, jobs, deficits, and debt. They are highly salient in the base of the Republican Party, but no one should confuse those voters with the national electorate. If the economy improves fast enough to allow abortion, gay marriage, and religious freedom to emerge from the shadows, Obama will win anyway.
That said, the contraception episode was what the tennis commentators call an unforced error. If recent reports are accurate, the president knew that his decision would create a firestorm. During the extensive deliberations that preceded it, Vice President Biden and many others counseled compromise. (Months ago, the White House was aware of the compromise the president eventually accepted.) Surely Obama knew that Catholics are a large and strategically located swing vote. And yet, despite well-received campaign speeches in favor of religious liberty (and against tone-deaf secularism), as president Obama chose to treat mandatory contraceptive coverage purely as a public health issue. That may indeed be his considered view.