Week in Politics: Birth Control And The Primaries

Robert Siegel talks to our regular political commentators — E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of the New York Times — about religious employers and birth control, and the Republican primaries.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Joining us now to discuss the week in politics, our columnists E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of the New York Times. Good to see you both.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to see you.

SIEGEL: And first, birth control and Catholic institutions. E.J., you've already written that you think the White House got it right this time. Well, why do you think they got it wrong the first time?

DIONNE: I think there were a lot of political factors at play and I think they totally misread Catholic opinion. I think a lot of people were surprised that liberal Catholics, like me, were so strongly opposed to requiring the church to pay for birth control, even though many of us dissent from the church's view on contraception. And the reason is that if you looked at the rule, the way they defined a religious institution, only churches qualified.

And some of the things that Catholics, liberals especially, but not just liberals, are proudest of that the church does or the things they do for people who aren't Catholic, for the poor, for immigrants, for refugees, for the people who are sick, that's doing the gospel's work - under this rule, that was not regarded as religious work. And so I think the president really had to make this concession.

I think the White House thought, well, Catholics don't agree with contraception. The bishop's might beat us up anyway, so we'll have a wedge issue on contraception. It was a total misreading of public opinion. Now, I think they're on the right track.

SIEGEL: But David, perhaps this is only coincidence, but the week that the president was under fire for what he'd done to Catholic institutions and birth control - was one of his best weeks in public opinion polls broadly, actually. Does he pay - are there consequences for this?

BROOKS: Yeah, I think there would have been consequences. I think a lot of people saw this mostly as a religious liberty issue. I think they understood that and that's why they took the decision today. And I think the decision's a fudge. It's a subterfuge. They hide the cost of contraception behind a cloud. But nonetheless, that's what we do in messy society. It's not always principled. It's not always logical, but we've got to deal with a lot of different sorts of people.

We want to show respect to – especially to the Catholic workers who are really doing the Lord's work in these neighborhoods. And by hiding the cost behind a subterfuge, that shows them some respect and so I think it's a step in the right direction.

SIEGEL: E.J., there's two reactions we've heard in Barbara Bradley Hagerty's story. Do you think that the general acceptance of this is the one that will prevail?

DIONNE: Well, I think what was most striking and the most important reaction in a way was Archbishop, soon to be Cardinal Dolan's. He's head of the Catholic Conference.

SIEGEL: First step, he said.

DIONNE: I'm sorry?

SIEGEL: He said, the first step in the right direction.

DIONNE: First step, but the music was a little more positive than negative. And I think the White House made a big mistake. They gave Dolan reassurances that this would come out okay and then they turned around and did exactly the opposite. You don't do that with any important political figure. It's the head of the Catholic Church. It's not a good person to do that with.

I think what's key here is that the Catholic providers, the Catholic health association, Sister Carol Keen was quoted in Barbara's piece, the Catholic Charities, they say they're OK with this.

And I'm not sure I'd say it's a subterfuge, as David says. I think it honors two religious liberty principles, that there ought to be access to contraception for employees but the church should not be forced to pay for it. And I think they've achieved two worthy goals here.

BROOKS: Yeah, somebody is going to end up paying it. I mean, they say the insurance industry is going to pay but they'll pass the cost on. And probably some of those costs will go to the church. Nonetheless, it's a polite fiction. It gives the church so they're not directly responsible. And mostly, it shows respect and that's what, you know, we do in our pluralistic society.

DIONNE: That's correct. And contraception also saves the insurance companies money 'cause it's a lot cheaper than covering pregnancy and childbirth.

SIEGEL: OK. Let's turn to the Republican primary season. David, two caucuses, one nonbinding primary this week, no delegates actually at stake but which was the lead? Was it Santorum wins three out of three? Or is it Mitt Romney loses three out of three?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: I didn't know - I thought they were the same thing. You know, it was Santorum wins Colorado. That's the place where Romney had some history. That's the place where he put in a little effort and he still got thumped. And so, the story is I think mostly Romney's weaknesses.

Santorum is a pretty good candidate. But the essential thing, you know, about Santorum is if he weren't running for president, if he were just going around the country, he would be saying exactly what he's saying right now. If Mitt Romney were not running for president, would he be saying what he's saying right now? Most people tend to doubt it.

They tend to think is driven by polls and political considerations and he says the right things. They're just not sure he has a conviction, a history, and a core. They don't know where it is.

SIEGEL: So what do you say if the candidate has an authenticity problem, if he can figure it out - if he can make up a good story about that, he'll have that...

BROOKS: Yeah. I wrote in today's column that some people are inner-directed, like Santorum. Some people are other-directed - they're directed by what they hear. And so, I'm telling him he should be less other directed and he should listen to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: E.J., what do you make of the Mitt Romney's situation and of Rick Santorum's success?

DIONNE: I find it frustrating when I agree with just about every word David said. I think David is absolutely right in terms of Romney's lack of authenticity. And that hurts them both among conservatives in the Republican Party, but also among people elsewhere.

I think Rick Santorum is running a campaign that is somewhat more positive. He shows some vision - I don't agree with most of it. Whereas, I think Romney's problem is his campaign has been almost entirely negative; negative primarily against President Obama, negative against Newt Gingrich, soon to be negative against Rick Santorum. He's got to give people a sense, if I may quote Richard Nixon, of the lift of a driving dream. There's none of that in the Romney campaign right now.

BROOKS: Yeah, I'd say this is about his personality. I think he really should take the risk, talk about his Mormon past. It's a sort of an inspiring story. He should talk about his faith, the things he believes in previous to being a takeover artist.

SIEGEL: You think that's part of what the problem is? That he's not talking about what really is at his core. Perhaps that's a political calculation.

BROOKS: Right, and nobody knows where he comes from geographically, religiously. And so he sort of emerges out of the Harvard Business School and that's just a problem for people.

SIEGEL: Well, thanks to both of you once again. Good to see you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: David Brooks of The New York Times, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post.

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