By Ken Feltman
Chicago is a place where many people – not just Roman Catholics – refer to wards and electoral districts by Roman Catholic parish names, not numbers. Amazing as it seems, a president from Chicago violated one of the cardinal (pun intended) rules of politics: Don’t get the nuns upset.
When the nuns become upset, the priests soon follow, the archbishop hears about it and the message goes forth from the pulpits and in the schools. Patients in Catholic hospitals get the message from the nuns providing nursing care. Students at Catholic colleges and universities are guaranteed to hear the church’s reservations. This is grassroots politics in its fastest and most reliable form.
The president was clueless even when surrounded by senior advisers who are experienced in the politics of Catholicism. How could that be? Vice President Joe Biden warned that the issue could be divisive, even explosive. Former Chief of Staff William Daley was strongly opposed. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius defended the decision as best she could. All three are Catholics.
Perhaps the president was misled when adviser David Plouffe cited research showing than many Catholics – especially women – do not agree with the church’s position on contraception. That is beside the point. The point is that the people who work for the church – the nuns, priests and nurses especially – oppose the decision. They had every reason to believe that the president knew where they stood. They felt betrayed. The president had dissed them.
A long-time head of the Republican Party in Chicago, Timothy Patrick Sheehan, put it this way: “Democratic leaders sometimes take it for granted that rank-and-file Democrats will fall in line. We Republicans know that nobody wants to think that they are part of the rank-and-file. Nobody wants to be taken for granted. It just takes one or two unhappy people. Pretty soon you are forced to retreat. Once you start retreating, you give up any hope of being the leader.”
To be published in Politico on February 11, 2012