MS. IFILL: The culture wars stage a comeback on contraception in the competition for conservative voters and on gay marriage. We explain it all tonight on “Washington Week.”
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It became clear that spending months hammering out a solution was not going to be an option. We needed to move this faster.
MS. IFILL: The White House, suddenly ensnared in a fight over who pays for birth control, gets yanked into the culture wars -- a fight already underway on the Republican presidential campaign trail.
FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: I know that this president will never get it but we conservatives aren’t just proud to cling to our guns and to our religion. We are also proud to cling to our Constitution.
MS. IFILL: But Rick Santorum with three victories on a single night surges as the latest anti-Romney.
FORMER SENATOR RICK SANTORUM (R-PA) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: The other thing we should recognize: as conservatives and tea party folks that we are not just wings of the Republican Party. We are the Republican Party.
MS. IFILL: And California just adds to the stew as federal judges reject the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.
Covering the week: Beth Reinhard of National Journal; John Dickerson of Slate magazine and CBS News; Nia-Malika Henderson of the Washington Post; and Pete Williams of NBC News.
ANNOUNCER: Award winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill,” produced in association with “National Journal.”
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Last week we were talking about the economy. But this week, Republicans jockeyed for the party’s most conservative voters and President Obama was forced into a political corner by Catholic bishops opposed to birth control. The president decided to try to defuse the controversy with an appearance in the White House briefing room today.
PRES. OBAMA: If a woman’s employer is a charity or a hospital that has a religious objection to providing contraceptive services as part of their health plan, the insurance company – not the hospital, not the charity – will be required to reach out and offer the woman contraceptive care free of charge without co-pays and without hassles.
MS. IFILL: There was a religious liberty argument. There was a health care argument. And in the end they both collided. So, Beth, how did this whole thing blow up?
MS. REINHARD: This was an outgrowth of President Obama’s health care reform and Democrats, particularly women, have argued that birth control should be just a basic part of women’s health care. But, you know, as you said, the Catholic leadership and also the leadership of the Republican Party came down very hard on the administration. They said this isn’t about health care. This is about religious liberty. This is about forcing church-affiliated groups to do something that’s against their teachings.
MS. IFILL: But the real danger wasn’t just the conservatives who don’t support the president anyway or the Catholic bishops even. It was the Catholic Democrats who were unhappy about this.
MS. REINHARD: Right. I mean, if you look at voting patterns, it’s interesting because Obama made gains among some of the most religious – the folks who go to church the most, but also did very well among the more casual churchgoers. And this threatened to sort of alienate those people, which were crucial to his winning the election in 2008.
MR. DICKERSON: So let me ask, then, about – you know, the president’s now come out. He said what he said. What’s your sense of how the politics work out on this now?
MS. REINHARD: I thought the president seemed pretty reasonable, though I don’t know the Republicans are ready to let him off the hook. Speaker Boehner put out a statement saying this isn’t over yet. And at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where the presidential candidates spoke today, none of them were ready to give credit.
MR. DICKERSON: Did they make the fundamental mistake, though, that this is about kind of encroachment into your life, that this is not about reproductive issues. This is about the government getting too much into your life?
MS. REINHARD: Well, right. It’s really all about how the issue is framed. I mean, if you look at the issue framed as a religious liberty argument, you know, it does seem unreasonable to force a church to do something against its teaching. If you look at –
MS. IFILL: (We’re going ?) to force an insurance company to pay for it, which is what his compromise was.
MS. REINHARD: Right. That was how the compromise put the burden on the insurance company as opposed to on the employer, Catholic hospital or charity or university.
MR. WILLIAMS: But when the speaker says it isn’t over yet, I mean, why not? I guess they can keep talking about it. I know there are some court challenges, at least three or four that are pending, but this is it, right? This is the rule. It’s done.
MS. REINHARD: I think they’re waiting to see if this satisfies the Catholic leadership and also I think, frankly, the Republican Party saw an opening here to really create some problems for the president.
MR. WILLIAMS: But if it doesn’t satisfy the Catholic leadership, what else can they do?
MS. IFILL: And this afternoon Bishop Dolan – Archbishop Dolan, who started this whole thing and had the private meeting with the president came out and said, this is a step in the right direction. So I don’t know if that satisfies.
MR. WILLIAMS: Right. But what to do what else next? I mean, they’d have to totally retreat, right?
MS. REINHARD: Right. I don’t think the president is willing to do that. I think he’s got – he’s sort of trying to balance his coalitions here. There are young voters and women, independents who like the idea of there being access to birth control and then, of course, there’s more religious folks who don’t like the idea of forcing a church-related group to cover something like birth control.
MS. HENDERSON: Any sense of what they learned about their messaging machine? I mean, it looks in some ways they got scooped by the conservatives. They were able to frame this thing pretty early on and the White House was left playing catch-up.
MS. REINHARD: Right. I mean, you could think that maybe that was intentional that they wanted to be able to come back and see – show how reasonable they could be and because one thing that you see developing as a theme in the campaign is Obama always painting the Republicans as obstructionists. I’m willing to compromise. And he likes to pitch himself as someone who is willing to compromise. So if that’s the benchmark, he did that in this case.
MR. WILLIAMS: I wonder if the White House was caught off guard by the fact that women’s groups didn’t really stand up and support this. They were kind of all out there by themselves.
MS. REINHARD: Well, it’s funny. The timing of it, you know, coming right off the Susan G. Komen foundation, Planned Parenthood thing. So that controversy kind of showed the power of women concerned about health care, speaking up. And this kind of showed the other side’s power.
MS. IFILL: But, you know, you wrote about it in the National Journal this week about how four years ago the president managed to get unlikely people to support him who now were turning on him and saying this was a problem. Does this more – does this do him more damage now or potentially in the general election?
MS. REINHARD: You know, I think that he – like you say –
MS. IFILL: Or the Republicans damage, actually, for that matter?
MS. REINHARD: Right. I mean, he reached out to evangelicals like no Democrat had before and he still didn’t win that vote, but he did make inroads. And, as you know, in a close election, you know, a thumb on the scale, a couple of points here can make the difference. And so I think that he’s hoping that this compromise will satisfy some of those people that did support him in 2008 and keep him on his side in general.
MS. IFILL: Well, would that were the only debate this week about conservative social issues because now let’s move on to the Republican field, where the frontrunner did an interesting thing today. He spent the heart of his campaign day explaining to conservatives that he is indeed a conservative.
MR. ROMNEY: I know conservatism because I have lived conservatism. I fought against long odds in a deep blue state, but I was a severely conservative Republican governor.
MS. IFILL: Severely conservative. There has been one consistent theme this primary season. It is that Republicans haven’t stopped looking for a nominee whose name is not Mitt Romney. Why is that, John?
MR. DICKERSON: Conservatives are standing at (Fort History ?) yelling stop. It’s a severe conservative – maybe he has a shotgun doing that. There have been 10 Republicans at the top of the polls in the Republican field at one time or another.
MS. IFILL: Ten?
MR. DICKERSON: Ten, people who weren’t even actually running. And one of the big themes of this race has been that Mitt Romney, who’s been atop the polls more than anybody else to be sure, he’s a frontrunner but he’s kind of a sickly frontrunner. He’s had three wins, but also five losses. Why is that? Well, because on some of the issues, like abortion and particularly in health care in Massachusetts, he holds positions that have either changed or that are antithetical to what the conservative – most conservative members of the party believe. And so they just don’t like him, but also he doesn’t get to them at the gut level. When you talk to voters all over this country in these contests so far, they talk about voting with their head or their heart. And even when they’re voting for Romney they say, well, I went with my head. But they really want to go with their heart.
MS. IFILL: But that said, it’s not new that he’s not – that people aren’t in love with him in lots of ways, but were they caught off guard with what happened, especially on Colorado on Tuesday night?
MR. DICKERSON: Yes. I mean, they were caught off guard. Part of one of the themes – we’ve had two themes. One, the anemia associated with Romney. The other is that there is no alternative to Romney. And what they have – and that’s very good for Mitt Romney that there hasn’t been a single alternative. So they were. They thought the vote would continue to be split and they didn’t recognize that it would be as bad as it was in Colorado. In 2008, Mitt Romney played the Rick Santorum role. Rick Santorum won in Colorado. In 2008 it was Romney who ran because conservatives worried about John McCain, thought he wasn’t the real deal. So they picked Romney. So part of it also was that they didn’t really play in those states the way they had in others. They said, you know, we did well in Florida and Nevada. We’ll do well in Michigan and Arizona, which are to come. So these three contests aren’t as big a deal. But, you know, now they are a big deal.
MR. WILLIAMS: Has Romney changed in the face of these challenges or is he still basically running the same campaign he’s always had?
MR. DICKERSON: Yes and no. (Laughter.) At CPAC today he mentioned the word “conservative” 25 times, okay? So the message is I am a conservative.
MS. IFILL: And the speech lasted for 26 minutes.
MR. DICKERSON: Yes. Exactly. And so what he’s trying to do – he can’t change too much, both because that’s not in his nature and also when you’re one of the big problems conservatives have with him – and when we’re saying conservatives, it’s a broad group. So we’re talking really about the very conservative. And also it’s geographical. So in the Midwest and the south they have troubles with them but they didn’t in Florida and not in New Hampshire and they won’t in the same way in Michigan. So we have to be precise here. But he is trying to basically say I am one of you. And here’s my long record. And that record includes my long-time marriage, my faith in my church. And so don’t think I’m some crazy non-conservative. I really do match up on these things.
And he’s got a good argument on two levels against Gingrich and Santorum. One is, I’m a leader. I’ve been a leader in business and with the Olympics. And I know the economy. I’ve never been in Washington. Those are strong.
MS. HENDERSON: Will he have a different strategy in terms of how he engages with Santorum and Gingrich, because he went obviously really negative in Florida, some indication that that might hurt him if he goes that way again.
MR. DICKERSON: That’s right. He’s on a two-front war now. He’s got to worry – although Newt Gingrich had such a bad night – and the real worry for Romney is that the conservatives have been splitting the vote between Santorum and Gingrich, the non-Romney vote. But what if it comes down – what if this – the results this week were everybody coalescing around Santorum? So he’s taken on Santorum a little bit but vaguely also in – in other words, they’re attacking him and conference calls are happening that we got used to with Gingrich saying he’s a Washington insider, he supported earmarks.
But then Romney is making the broader case a little bit less specifically saying I’m a leader, not been in Washington, which is a shot at Santorum but not exactly specifically as you point out. His numbers got very much worse among independents who like him less now than they used to. Also there’s a worry among conservatives. If he beats up on the conservative candidate too much, they might in the general vote for him. Of course, they don’t like Barack Obama, but he needs them doing more than voting. He needs them out there working hard for him.
MS. REINHARD: You know, he said – I think it was after his win in Florida. He said, you know, a long contest – I’m ready for that competition. This will actually make us stronger.
MS. IFILL: American – (inaudible) – which I believe was coined by Michael Dukakis. (Laughter.)
MR. DICKERSON: Yes. You never want to be from Massachusetts and quoting Michael Dukakis in a Republican race. Well, on the one hand, his numbers have been getting worse with independents and he’s – the longer he goes on, it also brings all these stories into the conversation which hurt his numbers. But, you know, talking to strategists this week, there are those – not just in the Romney campaign who are, of course, going to say this is all very good for him.
But they say a couple of good things are happening. One, he’s learning how to take a punch. And you’ve got to learn how to take a punch and react quickly. And he did that very well between South Carolina and Florida. Now, he took the punch and learned how to punch back. And he’s learning now this week how to do different things, be a little bit more personal. One of his problems, many people say, is that he needs to speak like a conservative, not just say I am severe conservative. So the other thing is he’s getting some of these issues out there he’ll have to face in the general. He’s getting a little more –
MS. IFILL: Yes. You shouldn’t have to say what you are. At some point, you’ve got to be able to show it. There is a beneficiary obviously of the “anybody but Mitt” movement. And that for now at least this week is Rick Santorum who won three contests and told the loyalists at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference we mentioned, he told them today that he is their best choice.
MR. SANTORUM: We always talk about how we’re going to get the moderates. Why would an undecided voter vote for a candidate of a party who the party is not excited about?
MS. IFILL: Good question. So how did Rick Santorum this week bounce back?
MS. HENDERSON: Well, it was good old fashioned political strategery in a lot of ways. He had Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich very much focused on Florida and then Nevada and he sort of went in there and stole some bases. In Minnesota, this was close, obviously, borders; Iowa, so a lot of real conservatives there. It’s Bachmann country. And then in Missouri he had a chance to really – to really match up against Mitt Romney because that’s his argument that if Newt Gingrich isn’t on the ballot and he wasn’t in Missouri that he looks pretty good against Mitt Romney. And then, of course, in Colorado he had James Dobson, a top evangelical, Focus on the Family is out there, on the stump with him. So they really showed up for him in Colorado and were able to sneak that win from Mitt Romney really shocking I think his team.
MS. IFILL: You’ve traveled with Rick Santorum a fair bit. And he had – was kind of robbed in Iowa. He won but nobody knew it for several weeks. Is there a message that he has been consistent with, that has been ringing a bell that now is paying off?
MS. HENDERSON: Yes, I think he is positioning himself as the blue collar moralist. He’s got this manufacturing plan, this approach to giving a manufacturer zero percent in terms of federal taxes. So that’s the thing that he talks about. He talks about his grandfather who was a coal miner. And he also obviously can get up there and say that he lives the conservative life. He not only talks about it. He lives it, exhibit A being his seven kids which I think six of which were out at CPAC today. So that’s his argument. And you saw him today also make the argument that he is a conservative. I am one of you. He said, you know me. We have toiled in the vineyards, he said today. And that, of course, is from the Book of Matthew. And so I think that’s his argument that he is the full spectrum conservative, and Mitt, a victory with Mitt Romney would be hollow. Those were his words today.
MS. REINHARD: You know, in the clip that we saw of Santorum, he was talking about conservatives not being that excited about Mitt Romney. He was obviously referring to. But, you know, and the folks I’ve talked to, the voters, are not – excitement for Santorum is also limited partly by concerns about can he go the distance?
MS. HENDERSON: Right. Right. And the fact that he lost in 2006 by I think – by about 18 points –
MS. IFILL: A lot. Yes.
MS. HENDERSON: – in Pennsylvania to Bob Casey, who’s not exactly Mr. Excitement. But that is I think a concern about Santorum. And people also – I hear people go up to him, as much as they agree with him, they give him crosses and they say, God bless you, they do worry about his viability in the long term because he doesn’t have a lot of money, because he has a shoe string organization. And they also want him to be more angry. They always say that. You know, we want you to be more passionate. We want you to be angrier. And he says that he doesn’t think that the Republican Party wants an angry nominee. They want to like the candidate.
MR. DICKERSON: And he’s trying to grow his vote outside of that group that’s telling him so he’s got to kind of ignore them a little bit. Where does – he’s done well with the Evangelicals, did well in Iowa and now – but where does he go now? Where is his next win?
MS. HENDERSON: Well, they think they’re going to play in Michigan. They’re going to be there next week. They think again –
MS. IFILL: Which is Romney’s home state.
MS. HENDERSON: It’s Romney’s home state. But he thinks again this blue collar message of being able to sit at these town halls with regular Americans that he thinks that that’s where he’s got some legs. States like Iowa – he was out in Oklahoma. He was in Texas meeting with a bunch of preachers. I think theirs isn’t until April or so and I think there’s some – I think there’s a case about when it actually is going to be. But he thinks he’s got some legs. They were able to bring in about $1 million after this win. I think they brought in $1 million.
MS. IFILL: A day.
MS. HENDERSON: Yes. Yes. A million a day. Exactly. Exactly. So we’ll see.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, has that changed the money picture for him enough?
MS. HENDERSON: Yes, it has slowly. I mean, he doesn’t have a sugar daddy in the way that –
MS. IFILL: He doesn’t?
MS. HENDERSON: I think Foster Fries has donated about $500,000, which is not quite –
MS. REINHARD: Ten million dollars.
MS. HENDERSON: Not quite 10 million.
MS. IFILL: Just to tell everybody – he’s the Super PAC guy who’s standing next to Santorum in a lot of these events. But you’re right. It’s not like Adelson money.
MS. HENDERSON: Exactly. Exactly. So there has been some uptick in some of these donors coming to his website. I think in a couple of hours after the win, they got like $250,000.
MS. IFILL: Is he vulnerable at all on the charge that he’s a Washington insider? I mean, he even said today he lives in Washington but he spent the night at home. That’s because he kind of lives outside of Washington?
MS. HENDERSON: He does.
MS. IFILL: So this is obviously the attack that Mitt Romney is mounting that he’s written earmarks for himself, that he’s defended it and that he is just another one of the same.
MS. HENDERSON: Yes, he is vulnerable to that. Mitt Romney is hammering him on being a big spender, on voting five times to raise the debt ceiling. So yes. He is vulnerable to that. I think the mark in terms of earmarks was something like $1 billion. And his defense is that there are good earmarks and there are bad earmarks. But, obviously, if you’re the tea party –
MS. IFILL: That’s an argument that doesn’t get made much.
MS. HENDERSON: Right. Right. So that’s his argument. But I think that you’re going to see obviously Romney ramp up the attack machine against Santorum, but they think they’re ready because they had this message of him being a true conservative.
MS. IFILL: Okay. Well, thanks. There was a kind of a quota to all of this this week. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California handed proponents of same-sex marriage a big victory, the decision to lift a ban on such unions, but only in California. It was met with dismay in some quarters, glee in others and profound worry on both sides which wasn’t – it seemed like it was a victory one day and then the next day people were thinking twice because it wasn’t as clear-cut as it seemed.
MR. WILLIAMS: A victory in some sense, but kind of limited to California because it was tied very much to the history of what happened in that state where the courts granted same-sex couples the right to get married, then they got married and then Proposition Eight passed by the voters in 2008 took it away. And it was that that the Court of Appeals said this week was unconstitutional. So here was the court’s analysis. They said California is a state that already has domestic partnerships giving gay couples all the legal rights that married couples have – spousal benefits, raising children, inheritance, hospital visitations, all that. So the court said, what did Proposition Eight change? Nothing, except the right to get a marriage license. And they said –
MS. IFILL: Just that word, “marriage.”
MR. WILLIAMS: The word, the right to say I’m married, the right to get a marriage license, because they said, even after Prop Eight was – went into effect and stopped gay marriages, gay couples could still do all the things legal that they could do before. So they said, really, that’s all that changed is the term “marriage” and you can’t do that under the Constitution because it’s clear, they said – the court said in a two-to-one vote that the real intent of Prop Eight was to put these folks in a lesser social status and the Supreme Court – the Constitution doesn’t allow that.
Now, the decision was written by arguably one of the most liberal judges, federal judges in the country, Stephen Reinhardt. And it seemed like it was crafted to be Supreme Court proof, either to make the courts say, well, that’s so California we don’t want to take it. Or if they do grant it, to say that it doesn’t affect the rest of the country so, you know, maybe we can let it pass. But the calculus there is are there five votes on the Supreme Court to open the door to gay marriage? And this is why some advocates of same-sex marriage were glad about this ruling and hope it goes to the Supreme Court and some advocates are fearing that it might go to the Supreme Court.
MR. DICKERSON: But if it does go to the Supreme Court, Pete, wouldn’t it jus be that California? I mean, in other words –
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, it might. And that’s one of the things I think the gay rights advocates are hoping for. But because of this logic that you have domestic partnerships, then gay marriage – you’re denying that as unconstitutional – that could affect seven other states that have full civil unions or have domestic partnerships. That might be another reason the Supreme Court might want to take it and chew it over.
MS. HENDERSON: Does this mean anything at all for the Obama administration? I think his last stance on gay marriage was that his views were evolving. What does this mean for where he stands on gay marriage, if anything?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, first of all, I think if the court does take this case, then it’s going to take it next year. So we’re going to hear a lot about this after the election or maybe they would take it in the fall but they probably wouldn’t hear it until, well, maybe October or November, right about the time of the election. And all the major presidential candidates have said they’re opposed to gay marriage. The Obama administration had nothing to do with this case, unlike the defense of marriage cases where the Justice Department has said it will continue to defend the law but it no longer – it will continue to enforce the law but not defend it in court.
MS. REINHARD: So what can we expect to see next, the next development in this case?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, the proponents of Proposition Eight – remember, the state decided not to defend this. Governor Schwarzenegger and still governor Brown are not defending the law. So it was left to the proponents of Prop Eight who got it on the ballot. They have to decide how they’re going to appeal. They have the right to go to the full Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals or go directly to the Supreme Court. There are tactical reasons for doing both, but I think most of the experts think it’s better for them to go to the Supreme Court now because the longer they wait to get to the Supreme Court, more states begin to adopt gay marriage, public opinion polls continue to change. So there’s a view that it’s better for the Prop Eight advocates and supporters to get it before the Supreme Court now.
MS. IFILL: And Washington State this week actually just added itself to the list of states that approve gay marriage. So I know that you don’t guess what the court’s going to do. I’m not going to ask you to. But it is wildly considered that Anthony Kennedy becomes the swing vote again in this.
MR. WILLIAMS: Yes. Yes. And if you read the decision, his decisions – the ruling this week – his decisions are mentioned almost as often as Mitt Romney said he was a conservative. (Laughter.) So clearly, Stephen Reinhardt was trying to appear – this is a letter that starts, dear Justice Kennedy. And so the question is Justice Kennedy wrote a very important decision about gay rights in California on the decision striking down the Texas sodomy law. Will he be consistent? That’s the question.
MS. IFILL: Okay. Well, that gives you something to do next year, right?
MR. WILLIAMS: Sure.
MS. IFILL: It will come up, bubble up. Thank you everyone. This was a full week and we couldn’t get to everything that happened, but we’ll pick up where we left off in our “Washington Week Webcast Extra.” You’ll be able to find us online still talking at pbs.org/WashingtonWeek. And you’ll find a lot of other goodies online as well.
Keep up with daily developments over at the PBS “NewsHour.” And we will see you again right here next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.