Friday, February 10, 2012

Commendable Compromise or Lackluster Leadership?

After a storm of controversy, during which Fox News proclaimed "We Are All Catholics Now," President Obama announced today a "compromise plan" that will not require most religious organizations to provide contraception coverage to their own employees. Under the previous plan, most religious organizations, except churches, had to provide insurance coverage that would expressly include contraception. Almost immediately upon issuance of the interim regulations, conservative organizations and religious institutions decried the mandate as "trampling upon the free exercise of religion." While the details of the coverage and exemption are a bit technical, the rhetoric leading up to the compromise has been clear: do we protect choice, privacy, and dignity, or do we protect religious liberty. The debate touches on core fundamental commitments of American democracy.

For opponents of gridlock, the compromise seems admirable. Unlock the mere procedural compromise during the payroll tax extension--which appeared petty to many--the contraception compromise was a substantive policy compromise. But we still have to question whether this is the kind of compromise we want. Should the loudest voices prevail, or should there be basic protections for fundamental rights (either liberty or autonomy) that do not fluctuate with the changing tides of popular--or interest group--sentiment? In short, does compromise always lead to better policy?


  1. "Should the loudest voices prevail...does compromise always lead to better policy?"

    In this case, I do not think the compromise was necessary or advantageous. While I am a fan of Obama offering to take one step in their direction for the sake of alleviating some of their worries, I don't think this is an issue in which doing so would create a better policy and have a recognized moment of cooperation. The issue of contraception/reproductive rights is one that's been argued for too long and has too many entrenched opinions on either side for a compromise to be recognized. When a party is painted as a villain in a case like this, it's hard to backtrack and acknowledge their positive steps after the fact.

  2. This is a fascinating issue for many reasons. First, it shows how elite opinion can sometimes drive the policy debate over general public opinion. Polls showed that even a majority of Catholics support insurance coverage of contraception -- so Obama had the popular position. But he was forced to back away from this position because elite opinion can drive the policy debate and many Democrats opposed the provision out of both personal conviction and becasue, they do, respond to elite opinion (the bishops, media, etc.). The backdown also resulted from the attention that this controversy brought to the ACA and the fuel it provided to Republicans arguing that this law has given the federal government control over "individual freedoms." Now, that can be pulled apart pretty easily, but the media adopted this framing of the issue, so that is the one that prevailed.

    As to compromise and policy -- even under the compromise, many thousands of employees of religious institutions will be getting contraceptive coverage. This is incremental change -- as many of you pointed out in your op-eds - this is what our system was designed to achieve.

  3. I think that issues like contraception are really part of a bigger question of the role that we allow religion to play in politics. As recent debates about contraception have shown, it is clear that the tension between politics and religion heighten political gridlock. So is religion trying to play too big of a role in politics? Though I would argue that religion and politics should be as separate as possible, Cardinal Timothy Dolan's discussion of this issue on today's "Face the Nation" brings new light to this issue, at least for me.

    On today's show (you can read a recap of it here:, Cardinal Dolan essentially argues that religion should always play a role in politics simply because it drives people to express their opinions on issues that they truly care about. In other words, allowing religion to influence politics—while still acknowledging the separation of church and state—enriches U.S. political dialogue. As Cardinal Dolan said, "The public square in the United States is always enriched whenever people approach it when they’re inspired by their deepest held convictions." Though nothing groundbreaking, his perspective on religion's important role in politics shed new light on the complicated issue. And as recent debate shows , these questions are certainly increasingly relevant.