My Take: Obama pledged to dial down the culture wars. What happened?
The author says that Obama has let down antiabortion Democrats.
September 6th, 2012
11:30 AM ET

My Take: Obama pledged to dial down the culture wars. What happened?

Editor's note: Michael Sean Winters writes the blog "Distinctly Catholic" for the National Catholic Reporter and is the author of "God's Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right."

By Michael Sean Winters, Special to CNN

Four years ago, anti-abortion Sen. Robert Casey addressed the Democratic National Convention.

“Barack Obama and I have an honest disagreement on the issue of abortion,” he said. “But the fact that I am speaking here tonight is testament to Barack’s ability to show respect to the views of people who may disagree with him… he’ll pursue the common good by seeking common ground rather than trying to divide us.”

The next day, speaking to fellow anti-abortion Democrats, we all admitted we had been moved to tears by Casey’s speech.

As candidate and as president, Obama promised he would try and heal the culture wars.

”Let's honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion and draft a sensible conscience clause,” he said in 2009 at the University of Notre Dame, a Catholic university, “and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women.”

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He retained the White House faith-based office President George W. Bush had created and even increased funding for religiously affiliated charities.

This week in Charlotte, Nancy Keenan, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, addressed the convention. Nearly all the politicians who spoke celebrated the party’s commitment to legalized abortion, offering some of the biggest applause lines of the convention.

Anti-abortion Democrats were crying again, but they were not tears of pride.

It has been clear for some time that President Obama’s campaign has concluded that they were never going to win the same levels of support among moderate, white, working class voters that propelled him to victory in 2008. Whereas in 2008, he was seen as a remedy for the bad economy, Obama is now seen as the cause, or at least not as the cure.

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So the president is re-litigating the culture wars he promised to salve in 2008. It’s one way to keep the Democrats from having to talk about the 8.3% unemployment rate.

And, so while one expected the Republican Party to be engaged in the culture wars, instead it is the Democrats, feeding off President Obama’s decision to bait-and- switch, that are stoking those wars.

Last November, President Obama met with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference. Obama said that he understood the Catholic Church’s concerns about a new White House contraception mandate that requires employers to provide no-cost contraception coverage to virtually all their employees. That includes those who work at church-run organizations like schools and hospitals.

Fixing this problem wouldn’t have been difficult. Obama could have expanded the exemption and allowed women who work at Catholic institutions to get contraception coverage through the exchanges set up by the Affordable Care Act.

Instead, the president announced there would be no change in the conscience exemption.

What happened? Women’s groups besieged the White House with complaints and the Obama campaign needed the fundraising support of pro-choice groups like Emily’s List. And so, Obama picked a thoroughly unnecessary fight with the Catholic Church.

The HHS mandate was the straw that broke the Church camel’s back.

But Obama’s Justice Department had earlier entered a Supreme Court brief arguing that churches had no special protection in the hiring and firing of their pastors, only to have the Supreme Court unanimously reject their view.

Then Obama’s Health and Human Services Department denied a grant to the bishops’ conference program to help the victims of human trafficking because church agencies would not provide or promote contraception, even though the program got high marks from HHS staff.

This week’s convention speeches are more evidence that Obama is still pursuing a strategy of exciting the base and suburban women and forgetting about culturally conservative Democrats.

“[The president] believes that women are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies and our health care,” first lady Michelle Obama said to thunderous applause.

It is possible the strategy will work.

For every culturally conservative Catholic voter Obama loses in western Pennsylvania, he may pick up the vote of an affluent, politically unaffiliated, nonchurch-going and decidedly pro-abortion rights woman in the Philadelphia suburbs. She might be in a position to write a check to his campaign as well.

And it’s true that some Republican actions have made it easier for the Democrats to rally the pro-abortion rights faithful.

In the key swing state of Virginia, the Republican legislature and governor passed a law requiring women to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound before getting an abortion, leading many centrist voters to conclude that it is the Republicans, not the Democrats, who are extreme on abortion. In Congress, Republicans tried to cut funding for Planned Parenthood.

What may work for Obama, however, will prove disastrous for his party.

It is difficult to see how Democrats will ever reclaim the House unless they win back the seats once held by anti-abortion Democrats like Kathy Dahlkemper of Pennsylvania , Bart Stupak of Michigan and Steve Dreihaus of Ohio. All three of those seats went Republican after anti-abortion groups targeted them because of their vote in favor of health care reform.

Branding the party as rigidly pro-choice, and even refusing to include “big tent” language on abortion in the party platform, will not help Democrats reclaim the House, so we can all look forward to more culture wars in the future.

Abortion rights groups and the Obama campaign may have cut off their nose to spite their face by reigniting the culture wars. No one looks forward to four more years of squabbles between a GOP-led House and President Obama.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Sean Winters.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: 2012 Election • Abortion • Barack Obama • Politics

soundoff (495 Responses)
  1. rob greene

    Or maybe it's a reponse to the recent GOP take-back attempt on women's rights.

    September 7, 2012 at 5:07 am |
  2. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    September 7, 2012 at 4:37 am |
    • Commojoe

      Right on.

      September 7, 2012 at 5:02 am |
  3. NDS

    Belittles an economy that, despite the Republicans' unyielding opposition to anything endorsed by Obama, is slowly recovering from one of the worst Republican created disasters of all time. Is a man, but thinks he has the right to tell women what choices they can or can not make about their own bodies. Hails the virtues of a cooperative bipartisan government free of "culture war", until one party takes a stand for equality and choice that goes against his religious and cultural beliefs and then the "War" is back on. Sounds to me like someone is in the wrong party. If all you wanna do is gripe and complain about how the economy sucks and insist on allowing the government to cram anti-choice and equality policies dictated by conservative, religious bigots down the throats of citizens who do not believe the same way meanwhile failing to offer any opinion or proposal on how to fix the "failing economy", please, by all means exit through the door on the right and continue down the hall to the ranks of the Republican Party because that is the platform you seem to desire. A Republican in Democrat's clothing if ever I saw one. Typical brainless, useless, conservative nitwit. A culturally conservative Democrat? Sounds to me an awful lot like a compassionate conservative Republican (remember Dubbya?) Didn't work so good back then, don't think those are the mentalities we need running the nation now.

    September 7, 2012 at 4:36 am |
  4. Sirned

    Our family is pro life but it's our decision not the Governments to make. Big big difference than dictating what my daughter by law is required to do with her body... Small Government remember Republicans?

    September 7, 2012 at 4:31 am |
  5. wes

    this is a issue that is No ones right to dictate what is Legal, and whats Not. Abortion should be left up to the one having it done. if she wants the baby ok, if she doesnt ok. No one has the right to stand there and tell someone "no" "no" "no" your keeping that baby even if it kills you.

    No One Has That Right To Dictate Abortion With Anyone!!

    September 7, 2012 at 4:08 am |
    • wes

      And that goes DOUBLE for religious people!! just because your god says abortion is bad, Does Not give you the right to force your gods will onto other people. if you want to belive in silly hokus pokus be my guest, just dont me or anyone to go along with you, unless they want to.

      September 7, 2012 at 4:19 am |
  6. Hindu

    The pro-choice people should take responsibility for their actions, don't expect the rest of us to share responsibility for your choices. And if you force us to share responsibility, then dont complain about my nose being inside your private business. you cannot have you cake and eat it too.

    September 7, 2012 at 4:04 am |
  7. Hindu

    All these pro-choice people, how many of you let your teens decide everything for themselves? BS ...

    September 7, 2012 at 4:02 am |
    • Bob C

      If you want to be treated like a teenager, then maybe you shouldn't vote.

      September 7, 2012 at 5:48 am |
  8. Hindu

    Obama is dividing women from their men and families! Nice job - divider-in-chief ....

    September 7, 2012 at 4:00 am |
  9. No one

    If its a legitimate discussion, the insane mind has ways to try to shut that thing down.

    September 7, 2012 at 3:27 am |
  10. CGS

    I don't care what you do with your body but don't make me pay for it!

    September 7, 2012 at 2:52 am |
    • Commojoe


      September 7, 2012 at 5:39 am |
  11. MessiahNoMo

    “Barack, you’re no Bill Clinton”

    September 7, 2012 at 2:50 am |
  12. tcaud

    The American people ignited the culture wars by voting Republican. That's what you get: you live in the nest you make for yourself.

    In coming years we will make war on the right with a pro-choice amendment. We will banish the stench of Judeo-Christianity from our public discourse forever.

    September 7, 2012 at 2:41 am |
    • Hindu

      What BS ... you blame the american people and then you blame the right ... look into the mirror to find the kind of persons to blame for america going down the tubes ...

      September 7, 2012 at 4:01 am |
  13. bones

    President Obama is reigniting the culture wars? Get real. Republican efforts to pass many, various, multiple types of legislation in so. many. states. all of which function to restrict access to abortion AND birth control (what could be more preventative of abortion than widely accessible birth control???) have been met by, yes, the Democratic party rallying behind pro-women and pro-choice organizations. Reacting is NOT the same as reigniting. And anti-abortion is NOT the same as anti-choice.

    September 7, 2012 at 2:24 am |
  14. bones

    President Obama is reigniting the culture wars? Get real. Republican efforts to pass many, various, multiple types of legislation in so. many. states. all of which function to restrict access to abortion AND birth control (what could be more preventative of abortion than widely accessible birth control???) have been met by, yes, the Democratic party rallying behind pro-women and pro-choice organizations. Reacting is NOT the same as reigniting. And anti-abortion is NOT the same as pro-choice.

    September 7, 2012 at 2:24 am |
    • bones

      * i mean anti-choice, duh. guess i was too slow with the X button

      September 7, 2012 at 2:25 am |
  15. Arie

    The pro abortion have a right to do anything with their body according to their belief with their own expense. It is nothing to do with non pro abortion and government. It is private subject, everyone has their own responsibilities as an adult. They supposed to know what they are doing. What government can help is education for group of people who are interested on how to avoid and reduce this happened again for their own benefits.

    September 7, 2012 at 2:16 am |
    • Commojoe

      Please take an English writing course.

      September 7, 2012 at 5:45 am |
  16. NateFromIndiana

    I have to admit I'm reluctant to accept a lecture about toning down the culture war when the lecture basically culminates in a blackmail note.

    September 7, 2012 at 2:12 am |
  17. Alan

    Abortion was made into a political issue by Republicans, who used the issue to "get out the vote" ... even though it didn't change legal access to abortion.

    After 40 years of being targeted in a negative way as the "pro-choice" Party, Obama has embraced the label. Maybe it will help him "get out the vote".

    When it comes to abortion, what really matters is how people decide for themselves.

    September 7, 2012 at 2:07 am |
  18. Literal

    "“[The president] believes that women are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies and our health care,” first lady Michelle Obama said to thunderous applause.

    It is possible the strategy will work."

    Is it stunning to anyone else that this bozo somehow thinks women thinking for themselves is a 'strategy' instead of a 'right'?

    September 7, 2012 at 1:53 am |
    • blood_wraith

      he didn't say that women thinking for themselves was a strategy, he was saying that appealing to those thinking women at the expense of differently thinking men was a strategy

      September 7, 2012 at 2:37 am |
  19. jrg

    So since the anti-abortion crowd did not get what they wanted, then the accuse the Obama administration of igniting the culture wars for political gain. Yet another group that views compromise as having their position adopted.

    September 7, 2012 at 1:46 am |
  20. John D

    For good or ill–and, to be clear, I'm a committed supporter of abortion rights and of reproductive liberty generally–the DNC's stridency on the abortion issue this year is a product of a political system that encourages pandering to one's "base."

    I'm increasingly of the view that citizens should be required to vote.
    Both sides' "bases" would be out in full force if that was the rule, but so would the other HALF of the electorate. It'd no longer be profitable, therefore, to pander just to that base.

    September 7, 2012 at 1:33 am |
    • NateFromIndiana

      I believe in a right of civil disobedience, and I believe that a tiny sliver of non-voters are taking that stance like Thoreau refusing to pay taxes as a protest against the Mexican American War. Most however are just being lazy. Yes, negative campaign adds make the topic of politics unpleasant, but with our form of government voting is our first and most important job.

      September 7, 2012 at 2:07 am |
    • Mike

      NateFromIndiana.....Unfortunately it is not the small sliver of people not voting as most of our presidential elections only see a turnout of 50-60 percent. While in some ways I tend to lean towards needing a way to increase the turnouts I also understand the right to non-violent civil disobedience. Maybe a system where if you choose to not exercise your right to vote you also surrrender your ability to avail yourself of other things like drivers licenses, FHA mortgages, student loans etc. I really don't have the answer but I do get a sinking feeling when you look at some of the newly formed democracies where people who could be killed for going to the polling places turn out in numbers that make us look disinterested in our own government.

      September 7, 2012 at 3:24 am |
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