Like pornography, the term caving in politics is hard to define. Politics is predicated on finding common ground, so inevitably, compromise will occur periodically. But just like pornography, as articulated by United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's threshold test, I know caving when I see it.
As someone who has expressed serious concerns about the Administration's political strategy for most of the term until last September, where I have seen real changes after Rahm and Daley's departure, not only was yesterday's ACA accommodation far from a cave by the WH, I think the current strategy is one of their best efforts. Follow me over the jump to find out why.
I think most of us can all stipulate that the rollout of the ACA rule as relates to mandated birth control was poor. Even if one argues, not unreasonably by the way, that the new policy was always the goal and they finally didn't start with the full compromise as the starting point (bravo), the rollout itself could have been more effective. That isn't anything new. But what is new, is the response.
In this case, the Administration appears to have held absolutely firm to the general principle that the actual rule was attempting to address. Moreover, they knew good and well that this step would not appease the original group attacking them. This was at a minimum going to be the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end.
I have to believe that they understand this, and are not viewing this as an incremental step with further compromise on the way. If they change again, they will alienate every side. So we can discount this potential outcome.
Therefore, what I see is them making a calculated decision to keep this issue on the table for the near future, if Republican so choose. What does that mean?
1. It shows Republican extremism.Every single one of these results is a political winner.
2. It shows that they side with women on reproductive care, healing some, clearly not all, of the wounds from the earlier Stupak Amendment and Plan B decision.
3. It gets the idea into the public sphere, in a major way, that ACA mandates free coverage for birth control, one that would not have occurred with an HHS press release.
4. It throws red meat out there to Republicans that they won't be able to resist. This gives Rick Santorum a better chance at extending the primary contest, forces Romney to the right, and most importantly, get Republicans talking about birth control, instead of jobs.
5. It activates the base. Fundraising and consolidation wise.
(I will stipulate, implementation of the rule is important and they must make sure the tweak does not allow insurers to place any unnecessary burden on women attempting to obtain health care of any form).
Now, if I had my druthers, I think they literally told the other side to pound sand, totally owning the original decision and still have won this fight. I think this was potentially Terri Shiavo Pt II, Electric Bugaloo, where the media and politicians were way behind the public. But I can't dismiss the argument that the "appearance" of accommodation addresses some real concerns, including those expressed by people here and elsewhere that I trust, and shuts the gas bags that have been all over my tv this week up. Now all of those gas bags (Matthews, Shields, et al) will be forced to recalculate their positions and change course (effectively placing them in opposition to their religious leadership which I assume can't be comfortable), or be shown as not being credible pundits, which would be great in my opinion. This will add to the President's "I'm reasonable and the other side isn't" message.
But now that they have started down this path, they can't back off. I said from day one, this is about ACA and the mandate. This issue was just the entry point. Republicans are not slick. This is about whether HHS has the right to mandate any coverage. And as we have seen, Rubio and Blunt have entered legislation trying to expand exemptions to all businesses under the guise of religious conviction. As someone who didn't agree with a mandate without the public option, I firmly believe that the Administration better protect their justification of the mandate because if they don't, they could lose much of their rationale for the mandate during SCOTUS oral arguments. And if HIR goes down, as much as I have concerns about it, it certainly won't come back up again for at least a decade. So even though I hated the incrementalism argument, we will never find out whether it was valid if HIR has to start from scratch.
This is why I think the White House will fight tooth and nail to maintain free and accessible contraceptive coverage for all women and men. They are on strong legal footing, they have polling overwhelming on their side, and if they appease, they are losing more than this battle.
Well played President Obama, well played.