- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2014

The Clinton White House believed Hillary Rodham Clinton had figured out a way to reach Catholic voters while still disagreeing on big issues such as abortion rights, according to new memos released Friday by the William J. Clinton Presidential Library.

One file of documents focuses on the Clintons’ outreach to Catholic voters, both during then-President Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign and later, as Mrs. Clinton prepared for her own political career.

The documents show a deep interest in identity politics, and a desire to avoid alienating the large block of voters.

In one 1998 memo from Maureen Shea, who was in the White House’s outreach office, aides were trying to figure out how to commemorate the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision establishing a national right to abortion, while not alienating Catholics who accepted church teaching against abortion.

“While they recognize that there will be no agreement on the issue, it is very disturbing to them when any who oppose abortion are labeled either extremists or anti-child,” Ms. Shea wrote. “They would like recognition that there are those of good faith who disagree on this issue. The way Mrs. Clinton handles it is very comfortable for them.”

Catholics have emerged as key swing voters in recent presidential elections, and candidates in both political parties try to earn their support while staying true to party principles.

Most recently, President Obama has found himself at odds with Catholic leaders over his health care law, which Catholic bishops generally backed until the president insisted that Catholic charities, hospitals and schools provide contraceptive coverage to their employees.

The Clinton White House seemed intent on trying to avoid those kinds of flare-ups and, when they were inevitable, on issues such as partial-birth abortion, to take proactive steps to try to control them.

In a 1996 memo the White House press office talks about needing to have a high-ranking Catholic official host a press call with Catholic reporters in order to try to explain the administration’s position on late-term abortions.

“The Catholics are the only religious group with which we need to be proactive,” wrote Brenda Anders, a press office staffer. She said John Hart, another White House staffer who was viewed as a key conduit to Catholics, had recommended the idea. “John suggests having Leon [Panetta] do the call because Leon can talk about POUTS’[sic.] personal struggle with the decision and because he is Catholic.”

The White House also repeatedly struggled to respond to letters from Catholic bishops, with presidential aides trying to strike a respectful tone that made clear the two sides weren’t going to agree on abortion but could try to find other areas.

And in a 1997 memo, the White House decided not to invite Frances Kissling, who at the time was president of pro-choice group Catholics for a Free Choice, to an event on hate crimes. Aides decided have her attend could be seen as an escalation of tensions with Catholic Church leaders.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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