White House Wields Power of Permission 

"This is not only unacceptable, it is un-American." 

-- Letter from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to President Obama protesting the president's policy requiring religious institutions to offer coverage for contraception, sterilization and the "morning after" pill. 

President Obama is scrambling to find a way out of his administration's decision to force religious institutions to offer insurance coverage to their employees for pills and procedures that violate the teachings of their faith.

All Republicans and now a growing number of socially conservative Democrats are denouncing the rule, part of the implementation of Obama's health care law. Meanwhile, liberal lawmakers and activists are demanding that the president not back down, saying that it is a matter of principle that religious -- especially Catholic -- hospitals, schools and churches be forced to offer their female employees this coverage.

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The most likely response for the embattled White House? Waive it away.

Since passage of the law nearly two years ago, the administration has already granted thousands of health insurance waivers to unions and employers who sought relief from new coverage requirements. These waivers have been on economic grounds: those receiving waivers have claimed that enforcement of the law would either be financially ruinous or cause them to drop their coverage altogether.

This waiver mania has been a easy way out for the president. He does not have to submit to the claims of foes of his law that claimed all along that the coverage mandates were impossible and would result in a wholesale dumping of workers onto taxpayer-funded health programs, but still he can avoid, or at least delay, that outcome.

Power Play suspects that the president will follow a similar path on the contraception uproar. If the administration offers specific conscience waivers to petitioning institutions it would go a long way to quieting the complaints of Catholics who disagree with the president on matters of life but generally agree with his agenda on social justice, income inequality, etc.

The president could thereby avoid the wrath of feminists who would go bonkers if the rule was rescinded. The rule would stand, but certain institutions would be exempted. For example, the nuns at Catholic Charities of Dubuque might be let off the hook while Georgetown University might never petition.

Most important, though, a waiver arrangement would preserve the new power of the executive under Obama's health law. Conservatives say the contraception provision is unconstitutional and a violation of God-given religious liberty. That's not an argument Obama wants to have. The president would rather deal with the specific cases and retain for himself the power to determine what kind of insurance employers must offer as well as a new power to grant or deny exemptions on religious grounds.

Today, the president will grant waivers to several states who say their schools are being crushed by the requirements of No Child Left Behind. This is similar thinking. Obama is retaining the powers granted him under the law, and giving himself the power to allow exemptions from it.

Total twofer.

The power to grant clemency is perhaps the greatest power of all. It affirms the underlying authority of the state but adds the power to wield the authority subjectively.

Obama is now in an utterly untenable position on the contraception mandate. If he can escape this danger, affirm the powers granted him under the health law, please his political base and show himself to be merciful all at the same time, why wouldn't he?

Conservatives Can't Decide 

"Well, I don't think the conservative base changes its mind day to day. And so we got a very strong sendoff from the conservative base in New Hampshire, from Florida and from Nevada. So the places where I campaigned actively, we got actually, in some respects, record support from the conservative base." 

-- Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney talking to reporters at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. 

Rick Santorum and Ron Paul can both rightly be called conservatives, but they are diametrically opposed on most key issues.

Santorum favors an aggressive foreign policy posture, targeted economic incentives and federal intervention to reinforce family values. Paul favors rapid retrenchment of American forces, bulldozing the tax code and government spending and wants to get the federal government out of people's personal lives.

While supporters of each of these two presidential candidates might say that the other man isn't a true conservative, there's no doubt that the word has fallen into a state of disrepair from overuse.

Most politicians shun the "liberal" label, even those who are very much so, but all Republicans and many Democrats seek the conservative label. It makes sense since more Americans identify themselves as conservatives. The most recent Gallup survey on the subject found 40 percent of adults called themselves conservative compared to 35 percent "moderate" and 21 percent "liberal." Politicians go where the voters are.

But defining what conservative means has become a nearly impossible task. This is partly a symptom of the movement's success. For much of the last century, conservatism could mostly be defined by opposition to the dominant national political culture: Democrat, New Deal, morally permissive, dovish etc.

It was easier in those days to say what a conservative was: a member of the opposition.

But following the election of the first modern conservative president in 1980 and subsequent successes of the movement, conservatism has gone mainstream and it has become increasingly more important for those on the right to say what they favor as opposed to simply what they oppose.

The Democratic midterm landslide of 2006 and Barack Obama's stunning victory in 2008 helped reunite conservatives for a historic victory in the 2010 midterms. But as Republicans have labored to pick a presidential nominee, the divisions have re-emerged.

All four remaining contenders have claimed the conservative mantle and all have said that their opponents are undeserving of it. This is possible precisely because the word is so malleable.

This helps explain the topsy-turvy Republican race this year.

It is 13 days until the next scheduled Republican debate and 19 days until the next primary. In this frenetic Republican nominating process, this is an eternity.

To put it in perspective, it was exactly 19 days ago that Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina primary by 12 points. That now seems like ancient history, with the race having twice been reset since then -- first by a 14-point Mitt Romney win in Florida on Jan. 31 and then again on Tuesday when Santorum swept two straw polls and a non-binding primary.

Thousands of activists are gathering in Washington for the next three days at the Conservative Political Action Conference -- sort of a trade show/pep rally for the movement. They will hear from all the candidates and argue amongst themselves over what the real conservative objective is at this most unusual political moment.

Conservatives have little love for Romney and feel, depending on the proclivities, strong attachments to Santorum or Paul. Gingrich has positioned himself as the one to unite these two warring camps: a little foreign interventionism, a dash of Fed reform and a soupcon of decrying a war on religion.

Santorum's wins this week is well timed because it may help him to convince the folks at CPAC that he is a big-tent conservative who can defeat Romney and Barack Obama.

Gingrich, though, is fluent in the language of the movement and can revive his narrative of being the Romney-blocking Obama defeater.

Paul doesn't bother with such political calculations and simply tells activists what they believe in their hearts: that the political establishments of both parties is aligned against them and that they should be about the business of tearing down the old order.

Romney, though, has a tantalizing offer to make. Since activists truly believe that Obama is wicked Romney can offer them an unhappy but still appealing bargain: pick the least doctrinaire conservative but the one polls show has the best chance of beating Obama.

And Now, A Word From Charles 

"And the reason [pending rules requiring mandatory employer insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization and the "morning after pill"] is so damaging for Obama and the Democrats is it augments two stereotypes. One is that Obama is antireligious, the seeds of which were planted when we had the tape and he thought he wasn't being heard about how the peasantry clings to guns and to God because of its frustrations. And second, I think the larger issue is the idea of intrusive, large government. That was an issue that created and propelled the rebellion in 2010 that causes the shellacking in the election." 

-- Charles Krauthammer on "Special Report with Bret Baier."

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.