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.