Call it the papal pause.
As political scientist Larry Sabato tweeted Wednesday morning, the media spectacle of Pope Francis’ first-ever visit to the United States brings political operatives and reporters some “respite from coverage of a seemingly endless campaign” for president.
But make no mistake: there has been significant strategic maneuvering among the White House hopefuls over the past couple of days. In fact, the pope’s trip to Washington, D.C. — which will continue through Thursday — has been approached quite differently by the two leading Democratic candidates.
None of the 2016 Democrats are celebrating the papal visit more than Bernie Sanders, front-runner Hillary Clinton’s strongest current opponent. Many hours before Francis arrived Tuesday, the socialist Vermont senator rallied with federal contract workers who are hoping the pope’s affinity for the labor movement can help their push for union representation and higher wages. Speaking alongside U.S. Capitol employees at a church near Capitol Hill, he was quick to invoke Francis’ union-friendly rhetoric.
“I hope that every member of Congress and the president will heed his call for social and economic justice,” Sanders said, according to Roll Call. “There is no justice when millions of people across our country, including people working in the United States Senate, are working for wages that are too little to take care of their kids, to take care of their family. That’s wrong.”
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By Wednesday afternoon, Sanders had done a series of national television interviews celebrating the pope, who spoke at the White House Wednesday morning. MSNBC host Chris Hayes said the senator’s welcome of Francis appeared to be “more than pro forma” and based on genuine enthusiasm.
When Sanders talked to CNN from the White House grounds, he heaped praised on the pope’s “very, very progressive agenda,” including the belief that conservative “trickle-down economic theory … doesn’t work, that government itself is obliged to protect those who are vulnerable.” (For what it’s worth, Francis told reporters Tuesday that he isn’t a liberal, although his support for government action against climate change and opposition to unfettered capitalism is still seen as a boon to progressive Democrats.)
For her part, Clinton hasn’t made much effort to interject herself into the story dominating the week’s news. In at least one way, she seems determined to fly under the radar.
The former secretary of state was in Iowa Tuesday, where she chose the very moment the pope’s plane was landing outside D.C. to announce her opposition to the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline.
“I think it is imperative that we look at the Keystone pipeline as what I believe it is — a distraction from the important work we have to do to combat climate change,” she said at an event in Des Moines. ”
The timing of this declaration — amid a massive media event and after months of evasion on the subject — raised more than a few eyebrows.
“LOL leadership,” laughed Iowa Republican Party Communications Director Charlie Szold on Twitter, as political publications across the ideological spectrum concluded that Clinton was using Francis’ arrival as “media cover” on the touchy subject of Keystone. Her announcement “comes with the distinct whiff of political opportunism,” Slate wrote.
Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, another of Clinton’s Democratic opponents, noted that they’ve opposed the pipeline for some time.
“I’m glad that Hillary Clinton finally has made a decision,” Sanders tweeted. “I welcome her opposition.”
O’Malley had a harsher response. “On issue after issue — marriage equality, drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants, children fleeing violence in Central America, the Syrian refugee crisis, and now the Keystone Pipeline — Secretary Clinton has followed — not forged — public opinion,” he said in a statement. “Leadership is about stating where you stand on critical issues, regardless of how they poll or focus group.”
Like Sanders, O’Malley has been posting celebratory messages about the pope on social media since Tuesday, clearly embracing Francis with open arms. Clinton did release a video welcoming him Wednesday, but it might well be described as “pro forma,” to use Hayes’ term.
It’s possible to read too much into the differing approaches of Sanders and Clinton. He’s a sitting senator with reason to be in D.C., including attending the pope’s speech to Congress Thursday. Meanwhile, she has no formal role in any of the week’s papal events.
Yet Clinton’s positioning is somewhat striking. She offers Francis praise from afar, but Sanders is front and center. There’s even a prominent Republican candidate making more of an effort: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who converted to Catholicism from the Episcopal Church in 1995, was set to attend mass with Francis Wednesday evening.