In fact, I think that from the perspective of President Obama and his most ardent supporters (that is, those who will vote for him no matter how bad the economy is), this administration's "Catholic strategy" has been quite successful.
Gerson, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, writes the following in a November 16th column for The Washington Post:
In 2009, Notre Dame University set off months of intra-Catholic controversy by inviting a champion of abortion rights to deliver its commencement address. When the day arrived, President Obama skillfully deflated the tension. He extended a “presumption of good faith” to his anti-abortion opponents. Then he promised Catholics that their anti-abortion convictions would be respected by his administration.
Catholics, eager for reassurance from a leader whom 54 percent had supported, were duly reassured. But Obama's statement had the awkward subordinate clauses of a contentious speechwriting process. Qualifications and code words produced a pledge that pledged little.
Now the conscience protections of Catholics are under assault, particularly by the Department of Health and Human Services. And Obama's Catholic strategy is in shambles.
Gerson assumes, rather understandably, that a first-term President who received the majority of the "Catholic" vote should be interested in maintaining that support in order to be re-elected. Which is why Gerson, after recounting some of the recent conflicts between the HHS and the USCCB over conscience clauses and related matters, concludes:
It is also politically incomprehensible. Obama's Catholic outreach is being revealed as a transparent ploy a year before he faces re-election. A portion of the Democratic coalition, including civil libertarians and abortion-rights activists, has decided to attack and marginalize Catholic leaders and institutions. And HHS is actively siding against Catholic organizations.
How will the White House respond? More specifically, how will the Catholic chief of staff and America's first Catholic vice president respond? They gave up their own adherence to Catholic teaching on abortion long ago. But are they really prepared to betray their coreligionists who still hold these beliefs?
Sebelius is becoming a political embarrassment at an inconvenient time. It will be significantly harder for Obama to repeat his appeal to Catholic voters while a part of his administration is at war with Catholic leaders and Catholic belief
Some on the left, such as TIME's Amy Sullivan (whose loathing of Catholicism is not a secret), have downplayed Gerson's concerns, saying that the Obama administration has simply been the victim of various officials "bungling policy decisions and basic communications strategy". But I think that bungling and bias (or bigotry, as the case might be) are not only compatible, they are often smitten lovers skipping through the insular meadows of political hubris. Arrogance has a way of blinding us to our weaknesses and faults, as well as causing us to disdain the positions of others and to be dismissive of their positions without taking them seriously. Need I point out that the Obama administration has earned a reputation for arrogance and hubris that is impressive, even at a time when such faults are common to the point of being taken for granted within the realm of politics?
Over against Gerson's puzzlement, here is what I think has happened and is happening:
• A young and fast-rising politician who had demonstrated few obvious ideological loyalties, with the notable exception of consistent homage paid to NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and the god of "choice", ran for the Presidency. (For instance, in Sen. Obama's 2007 speech to PP: "I’ve stood up for the freedom of choice in the United States Senate and I stand by my votes against the confirmation of Judge Roberts and Samuel Alito...")
• Candidate Obama recognized that, first, he needed to get a significant portion of the Catholic vote and that, secondly, the Catholic Church is the most visible opponent of abortion in the United States. But he also recognized that a majority of Catholics do not actually adhere to the Church's teaching that the most fundamental of human rights is "the right to life, from conception to its natural end..."
• Although not a Catholic, he saw he could take up and tweak the playbook employed so successfully by the late Ted Kennedy and other "pro-choice Catholics", who use the language of "social justice" and "choice" and "freedoms" and "privacy" to deflect from his core stances, which added up to the most pro-abortion platform ever held by a presidential candidate.
• In addiition to facing a weak opponent and being able to feed off deep frustrations with the out-going President, he was able to cast himself as a moderate and balanced candidate who, miraculously, was above the fray of competing, extremist positions; in fact, this rhetorical appeal to moral superiority became a constant feature of his campaign and presidency. As Gerson notes, assurances were given, but the words and the actions (as Gerson also observes) were not in synch; on the contrary, the rhetoric was cover for actions that are overtly pro-abortion and anti-life.
• Candidate Obama used and employed Catholics who, for whatever reason, bought into the image and posturing of his campaign. Douglas Kmiec, who assured Catholics that Obama was almost as Catholic as the Pope, and Fr. Thomas Reese, who gave cover to Pres. Obama prior the 2009 visit to Notre Dame, come to mind. (Toss in the entire staff of National "Catholic" Reporter for good measure.)
• Candidate Obama knew—and this is essential—that he could not and would not win over serious, practicing, orthodox Catholics, but he also didn't care, because he knew the majority of Catholics in the U.S. are not serious, practicing, orthodox Catholics.
• He also knew that if he had enough "Catholics" singing his praises, he could pass himself off as "Catholic friendly"—even a close and abiding friend of the Catholic Church. He surely saw this method work with Senator Kennedy, who continued, even after death, to be lauded as a great Catholic politician despite stomping constantly on Catholic teaching with an impunity, recklessness, and arrogance that is as breathtaking as it is scandalous.
• Put simply, I believe that a key part of candidate Obama's "Catholic strategy" was to appeal to those Catholics who either doubt or deny the Church's teaching on life issues. And, frankly, it was a smart political strategy. It worked. It certainly helped that Sen. McCain was not an attractive option to many Catholics (both "liberal" and "conservative"), but it would have a been a good strategy regardless.
• Since taking office, Pres. Obama has aggressively pursued the few issues that he was consistent on prior to his election, including (or even especially) abortion "rights". He has purposelessly purposefully chosen pro-abortion Catholics such as Kathleen Sebelius (who one pundit tried to pawn off as a "pro-choice pro-lifer"), because it provides cover for his direct attack on life; that is, his direct attack on Catholic beliefs and teachings. Nancy Pelosi and Sebelius, in particular, have proven to be instrumental in this destructive work.
In other words, the actual, long-term "Catholic strategy" of this administration is to undermine and dismantle the witness and work of the Catholic Church, which works on the behalf of protecting life from the moment of conception to the grave. Pres. Obama has proven time and time agaoin that he is committed to a pro-abortion agenda that will not and cannot pay respects to those who believe life begins at conception, that it is sacred, and that abortion is a "moral evil" and a "criminal practice" (CCC, 2271-4). There is no middle ground. Unfortunately, the disciples of death have always understood this, even while many of those who are disciples of life have been slow to admit this stark truth.
Finally, Gerson, like so many others, mistakenly talks about the "Catholic vote" as if it were some sort of monolithic, cohesive entity. It is not. The majority of Catholics are not guided by Church teaching, at least not in a consistent and demonstrable manner; they vote, in general and at best, like liberal Protestants. Many of them vote just like their pseudo-sophisticated, neo-pagan neighbors. Gerson wonders how it is that Vice-President Biden and other Catholics in the Obama administration might actually "betray their coreligionists" by siding against the USCCB on these issues of conscience clauses and so forth.
The naivity of the question is, well, embarrassing. Let's be blunt: if a man is willing to sell the lives of the unborn for political gain, why would he hesitate to sell out the "coreligionists" whose beliefs he obviously rejects? Or, in more eschatological terms: if a man is willing to sell his soul for earthly power, why would he give a damn about the judgment of heaven? The Catholic strategy of the current administration, I submit, is not in shambles, but is simply out in the open. It is politically comprehensible exactly because it has, so far, been politically successful.