Election 2012: Managing Alternatives


Updated 5:30 p.m. Friday | One of the things we tell our children is that life is all about choices.

We celebrate this idea, because it is an essential part of the kind of ambition we want them to have. We want them to consider all the options, and then aspire to the best one.

In politics, the language of choice often comes loaded. School choice. Abortion rights. Public option. Proponents embrace these descriptions to put the best possible face on otherwise contentious issues.

This was one of the weeks where the politics of alternatives defined the debate. President Obama ended his week by pulling a compromise out of his hat on coverage for women’s health care that sparked a surprisingly fierce pushback from the Catholic Church.

Should individuals pay for contraception? Should employers who object to birth control be required to pay? The tightrope solution from the White House — make insurance companies pay. President Obama’s decision to abandon his opposition to big-money super PACS was another painfully studied choice, since the president was on record in opposition to such spending.

Obama 2012 manager Jim Messina admitted as much in a campaign blog post.

“With so much at stake, we can’t allow for two sets of rules in this election whereby the Republican nominee is the beneficiary of unlimited spending and Democrats unilaterally disarm,” he wrote. The alternative, he suggested, was forced on them.

For GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney, who saw his march toward the Republican nomination slowed by a trio of primary season losses, the week’s choice was more of a pivot.

With good news building on the economic front, it was becoming more difficult (but not impossible) to fault the incumbent president’s handling of the economy. Then Rick Santorum clocked him in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado, and Romney was left with little choice but to start speaking to the social conservatives who seem immune to his charms.

The Obama administration handed the Republicans a handy assist on this. The alternatives in this case were balancing its commitment to contraceptive coverage for women in the president’s health care plan against the anger this stirred up among Catholic bishops who said mandating contraceptive coverage forced them to violate their own beliefs.

As this controversy – and an earlier one involving contributions to Planned Parenthood from the Susan G. Komen Foundation – blew up, the culture wars promptly replaced the economic debates on the nation’s front pages. So Romney got on board.

House Speaker John Boehner called the contraceptive coverage provision an “unambiguous attack on our religious freedom in this country” and the White House frantically signaled it would find a way to work something out. By then, the red meat was already on the table.

The search for alternatives does not end at the Washington beltway. A federal appeals court panel demonstrated that this week when it issued a narrowly tailored ruling allowing California — and only California — to allow same-sex marriages. Opponents of Proposition 8 — which banned same-sex marriage — were elated, but were also left deeply nervous about whether a likely Supreme Court challenge would ultimately forbid gay marriage in all 50 states, instead of just one. Those are the alternatives.

The choices play out in every direction, including in the federal government. This week, the White House and Congress competed to see which unpopular branch of government could engineer passage of the greatest number of incremental solutions — whether by forbidding insider-trading for lawmakers or rescuing homeowners who owe more on their homes than the homes are worth.

For voters on the left and the right, the alternatives — and the choices to be made — become more basic. Do they choose electability or enthusiasm?

For Democrats, that means coming to grips with the idea of re-electing an incumbent they may not always agree with.

And for Republicans, it’s about deciding when and whether to choose a nominee who can beat that incumbent – even if he does not make the heart pound.

Try explaining that to the children.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.