One Friday earlier this month, elected officials, activists and advocates were planning a big sign-waving, high-energy press conference and rally on the steps of City Hall to protest the Komen Foundation’s decision to pull funding for Planned Parenthood. After a national outcry, Komen changed course, but the presser went on as planned.
It was something of a desultory affair: A Friday afternoon, cold, gray skies overhead, the pigeons on the stoop far outnumbering the number of shivering press who gathered there, mostly at the behest of assignment editors who hadn’t gotten the memo that the battle was over. Only three elected officials even bothered to show up.
Fast forward two weeks: The Obama administration announced a plan to require religious institutions to provide contraceptive coverage. Amid another uproar, some of the region’s highest-profile conservative politicians tried to one-up their counterparts, planning a rare presser, just as Sunday Mass was letting out, on the glittering steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral—the home parish of Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the man who almost single-handedly stopped the president’s initiative.
In this case, however, after President Obama had backed down, the local electeds did too, scrubbing the press conference at the last minute.
But either way, the events in Washington and their corollaries locally showed that after decades of détente over reproductive politics, both sides were once again spoiling for a fight.
Political analysts say that you have to go back almost all the way to 1992 to recall a time when issues around abortion and contraception were central to a presidential campaign. Then, it was a deliberate effort by Bill Clinton to reach out to women voters and differentiate himself from President George H.W. Bush—and observers were surprised that someone who ran promising to be a centrist “New Democrat” would brook no compromise on Roe v. Wade. Since then, while social issues have often risen to the forefront of the national conversation, they were usually matters like gay rights, or the right to die (e.g., the Terri Schiavo case). When it came to abortion, if it was an issue that mattered to voters, they knew which team to sign up for, so it was in both parties’ interest to downplay the division in the hopes of grabbing anybody in the middle.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly what broke the peace. Is it a matter of an uptick in the economy that has pushed kitchen-table issues aside? Is it a matter of a Republican Party that reflexively opposes everything President Obama does? Is it a matter of a GOP primary, one where the front-runner has to prove his abortion bona fides?
Or perhaps it was a battle that has been roiling below the surface for years, just waiting for a spark to light it.
“The pro-life movement has always been at a high level of mobilization, and that is easy to forget in the news cycle,” said Ziad Munson, a sociologist at Lehigh University and author of The Making of Pro-Life Activists: How Social Mobilization Works. “The fact that elements of that movement were able to capture the public imagination at this moment is not that surprising. If you knock on this door enough times, eventually it will open.”
Both sides now are trying to count the last fracas as a win for their side, and promise further skirmishes going forward.
“The president really made a political mistake,” said Peter King, a Long Island Republican congressman. “He lost. Maybe, you know, to you, we Catholics all look alike, I don’t know, but there are real differences and that he got so many of the real liberal Catholics [angry] showed what a mistake he made.”
But even some of Mr. King’s party aren’t confident reproductive rights is a fight they can win.
“I don’t think it’s a conspiracy, but I think they know that by baiting social conservatives, they energize their activists,” said David Johnson, a Republican consultant who worked on Bob Dole’s presidential campaign. “If we are arguing about social issues in the 2012 election, Obama wins.”
But the fact that Mr. Obama was stopped (and, even his supporters conceded, a little embarrassed) owes less to any change in the culture and more to a jovial gentleman who lives just north of Times Square, someone little known to most people on Capitol Hill but who seems to represent a significant source of power in the future: Archbishop Timothy Dolan.
As far back as November, according to Politico, Mr. Dolan had a meeting with President Obama and a close circle of advisers over the measure. Afterward, he told people that he believed an accommodation with the White House could be made, and when it wasn’t, Mr. Dolan launched a full-bore assault, taking to the op-ed pages of major newspapers like USA Today and The Washington Post, the pulpit and the Internet to excoriate the president.
According to sources on Capitol Hill, Mr. Dolan was furious with the president after the plan to force religious institutions to approve contraceptive coverage was announced.
“He felt like the president had not been honest with him,” said one congressional source.
Just as the furor over the Mr. Obama’s compromise—to require insurance companies, but not the religious institutions themselves to pay for the coverage—was raging on the weekend talk shows, Mr. Dolan was en route to Rome, where he was about to be ordained a cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI.
The timing was coincidental, but for someone whose “media savvy” seems to be the first term people use to describe him, it couldn’t have turned out better.
“The fact that the pope makes him a cardinal, it means that when he speaks he does so with the full force of the Vatican behind him,” said John L. Allen, a correspondent with the National Catholic Reporter who has written a book with Mr. Dolan. “Part of the reason this issue got so much play is because Dolan has been an unusually savvy spokesman for the agenda. Bishops put out statements all the time. You don’t often see them put the world on fire like this.”
A year and a half ago, Mr. Dolan was the surprising winner of a contested election to become president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In the previous decades, the group had been a moribund presence on Capitol Hill.
“I was not always impressed by them,” said Congressman King. “They have, for the most been pretty liberal … They would go through the motions on abortion, but other than that they would be really into the social spending, and pretty liberal on international affairs.”
Catholic scholars say this isn’t quite right—that after spending most of the ’70s and ’80s on social justice issues, the bishops have been devoting themselves to “protecting life,” i.e, reproductive policies.
Only before, they didn’t have such a good face.
“Not everyone is a good spokesman, and he is someone people want to follow,” said Dennis Poust, a spokesman for the New York Catholic Conference. “He is committed to protecting the civil liberties of the church and I think he is serious about the degradation of the First Amendment.”
Even supporters of Mr. Dolan say that he was rendered relatively ineffective during the gay marriage debate in New York. And there remains lingering distrust among some conservatives for the bishop’s tacit backing of Obamacare and his support of liberalized immigration measures.
“Dolan is so charismatic that it is more like he is raising the profile of the group than they are raising his profile,” said one longtime Hill staffer. “Before, there would be things they wanted to do but they couldn’t articulate them in the right way. It takes someone like Dolan to step up and say, ‘There is a role we can play here.’”
But in Mr. Dolan conservatives on Capitol Hill feel at last like they have an ally who is, in the parlance of the day, a “severe conservative,” albeit one who cops to indulging the occasional cold beer at a baseball game and doesn’t seem to have ever met a camera he doesn’t love.
“Past presidents of the bishop’s conference have been nice guys, but I don’t think anyone would describe them as media dynamos,” said Mr. Allen. “This is conservatism with a compassionate edge. It’s not the fire-breathing, finger-wagging prophet of doom. He just exudes hail-fellow-well-met, back-slapping, baby-kissing good cheer. He is an up-with-people ambassador. He defies people’s stereotypes of what a conservative religious leader is like.”
Catholic scholars say that Archbishop Dolan remains mostly unknown outside of New York. But that is starting to change, first with his arrival here in 2009, then with his election as head of the Conference of Bishops, and now with his elevation to cardinal and his going toe-to-toe with the Obama administration. Catholics remain some of the quintessential swing voters in the presidential campaign, and if the Obama administration is wining battle after battle, political analysts warn that it may come at the expense of a elevating a new adversary.
“The Catholic bishops were out of front on this in a way that they hadn’t been in a long time,” said Professor Munson. “It was clear that they weren’t going to accept symbolic compromises. It was the first time in a long time you saw them flex their muscles. Who knows how assertive they are going to get.”
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