I can’t believe I’m losing to this idiot. So said John Kerry during the presidential campaign. Judging from the news stories following the election, many of his supporters appear to have had the same reaction—with no sense that the condescension inherent in their candidate’s statement helps illuminate the reasons for the election results.
In the New York Times Maureen Dowd complained that Kerry lost because the President divided America “along fault lines of fear, intolerance, ignorance, and religious rule.” In the Washington Post, E. J. Dionne took much the same line, attributing the Kerry defeat to “vicious personal attacks, the exploitation of strong religious feelings, and an effort to create the appearance of strong leadership that would do Hollywood proud.” James Carville said it was the lack of a “compelling narrative.”
But perhaps the best explanation was given by a Democrat who called this election more than a decade ago: Bob Casey, the governor of Pennsylvania from 1987 to 1995.
I didn’t know Governor Casey personally. But back in 1992, fate put me within a few feet of him inside Madison Square Garden during the Democratic National Convention. That was when Clinton officials refused a place at the podium for the Democratic governor of America’s fifth-largest state while also providing speaking slots for six pro-choice Republican women. To make sure the point was delivered, one of these was a pro-choice woman who had campaigned for Casey’s Republican opponent.
On Election Day 2004, the silencing of Bob Casey thundered through America’s polling booths. In vain, Casey in 1992 had warned his fellow Democrats about allowing the Party to be become “little more than an auxiliary of NARAL.” In his autobiography he put it this way:
Many people discount the power of the so-called “cultural issues”—and especially of the abortion issue. I see it just the other way around. These issues are central to the national resurgence of the Republicans, central to the national implosion of the Democrats, central to the question of whether there will be a third party. The national Democrats may, and probably will, get a temporary bump in the polls—even, perhaps, one more national election victory—from their reactive strategy as the defenders of the elderly and poor who rely on Medicare and Medicaid. But the Democrats’ national decline—or better, their national disintegration—will continue relentlessly and inexorably until they come to grips with these values issues, primarily abortion.
As Democrats emerge from the electoral rubble, must not a few be noticing that Bob Casey has proved to be prophetic? Today a Republican who lost the popular vote in 2000 and launched a controversial war returns to the White House with the largest number of votes any American President has ever received; Republicans have added to their majority in the House; and they now well and truly control the Senate—even if it’s not yet clear that they control Arlen Specter.
Another way to put it is this: Democrats seeking to understand their plight need look no further than the Catholic members of their own leadership, whose apologias for the Party’s pro-choice orthodoxy have had the unintended effect of making Republicans out of Democrats who might otherwise have delivered a Kerry victory. These Catholic leaders can be divided into two broad camps.
The first are the co-dependents. These are mostly Catholic politicos who sensed the turn in their Party elite and, whatever their initial reservations, ended up becoming stridently pro-choice. John Kerry personified today’s Catholic Democrat. This is a man who began his primary campaign pledging his support for abortion at a NARAL Pro-Choice America dinner and near the end of his campaign repeated that support in a speech that was meant to stress how much his Catholic faith meant to him.
Whether or not charges of Kerry being a “flip-flopper” were valid on other issues, there can be little doubt that on abortion Senator Kerry, like his Party, has been clear and unequivocal. Here is the relevant language from the 2004 platform:
Because we believe in the privacy and equality of women, we stand proudly for a woman’s right to choose, consistent with Roe v. Wade, and regardless of her ability to pay. We stand firmly against Republican efforts to undermine that right.
Let us parse the language of this plank. The first part declares pride, not regret, for a policy that is effectively abortion on demand. The second—“regardless of her ability to pay”—means that even those Americans who believe abortion to be the taking of innocent life will be taxed to underwrite it. The third—“we stand firmly against Republican efforts”—we saw in action during recent confirmation hearings, when Senator Chuck Schumer of New York posited that the “deeply held” Catholic beliefs of Bill Pryor disqualified him from sitting on the federal bench—and the Catholic Democrats on the Committee registered no protest.
It wasn’t always so. Back in the 1970s, when Democrats were far more pro-life than Republicans, even Ted Kennedy could write the following in a letter to a constituent:
While the deep concern of a woman bearing an unwanted child merits consideration and sympathy, it is my personal feeling that the legalization of abortion on demand is not in accordance with the value which our civilization places on human life. Wanted or unwanted, I believe that human life, even at its earliest stages, has certain rights which must be recognized—the right to be born, the right to love, the right to grow old.
Senator Kennedy, like his fellow Catholic Democrats, has become a staunch abortion supporter. Without these Catholics, Senate Democrats would not have the votes to keep Catholics such as Bill Pryor or Miguel Estrada off the federal bench.
These include just about every Catholic Democrat in the Upper House: John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, Tom Harkin, Barbara Milkulski, Pat Leahy, Christopher Dodd, Patty Murray, Mary Landrieu, Joe Biden, Jack Reed, and Dick Durbin. Some may have started out speaking of abortion as a necessary or inevitable evil. Over time, however, almost all have moved from regret to endorsement to where they are now: an aggressive and often publicly stated determination not to allow any pro-life shoots to sprout up through the NARAL concrete.
In this light the fate of Senator Tom Daschle, who lost his Senate seat in the November election, ought to be sobering. As Senate Minority Leader, Daschle told a Democratic audience that Roe v. Wade was “sacred ground”; he also orchestrated the filibusters that during President Bush’s first term prevented pro-life judicial nominees from even receiving an up-or-down vote—and then complained during his reelection campaign about being called “pro-choice.” This year, the contradictions caught up with Tom Daschle.
Then there’s Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, an alumnus of Catholic University of America, who now has the distinction of having presided over one of the greatest collapses of a national party in modern times. Such is the Party orthodoxy that when a tiny group called Democrats for Life asked him to include a link to their website among the two hundred links on the DNC web page, Mr. McAuliffe refused. His Solomonic solution: no links at all.
Like the wife who calls the office to say that her alcoholic husband is sick with a fever when he’s really off on another bender, these co-dependents do nothing about the Party’s drift because they fear a stand will cost them heavily. Democrats like to talk about Halliburton and GOP ties to big business. But abortion is a big business, too—and embryonic stem-cell research potentially many times bigger—and woe to the pro-life Democrat who dares express dissent.
Again, it didn’t have to be this way. It’s too much to expect today’s Democratic Party to be as pro-life as the GOP, given the institutional heft in today’s Democratic Party of NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and Emily’s List. But there are many gradations in between. Those Catholics who try to explain away the Party’s abortion stance are fond of talking about politics being the art of the possible. But their silence works to diminish the possibilities for pro-lifers. Where, for example, were the Catholic Democrats when the Party eliminated from the abortion plank the “conscience clause” that recognized moral disagreement on the issue? Even the U.S. military has a “conscientious objector” provision. But not today’s Democratic Party.
Yet as culpable as co-dependents are for the current plight of the Democrats at the national level, there is another category of Catholic Democrats who may be even worse. These are the enablers.
Enablers tend to work in the media, at universities (including, most disappointingly, Catholic universities), or for pressure groups. In contrast to co-dependents, enablers frequently insist they do find abortion abhorrent and that they fully accept church teaching. I do not question their sincerity, but I do question their judgment. The public record manifestly demonstrates that the consequences of their actions have served the NARAL culture better than the Catholic one.
In America today we have legions of these Catholic enablers. I’ll mention just a few, beginning with the founding father of the enabler community, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo. In some ways Cuomo belongs in both groups, because as a pro-choice politico he was also a prominent co-dependent. But his greatest effect has been as an enabler, and his most important achievement has turned out to be his “personally-opposed-but” speech at Notre Dame in 1984.
In the twenty years since then, Cuomo’s casuistry has proved useful to many a Catholic Democrat (and some Catholic Republicans). But this election exposed the flip side: the exodus of millions of Catholics who, rightly, see the Cuomo position for what it is: a wink and a nod.
Even so, the enabling industry thrives. In the last weeks of the 2004 electoral campaign, a Notre Dame dean, Mark Roche, appeared on the New York Times op-ed page making the case that, the evil of abortion notwithstanding, Kerry’s candidacy reflected Catholic teaching better than Bush’s did. On the whole, it reminded me of Marion Barry’s defense of his mayoral record in Washington D.C.: “Outside of the killings, Washington has one of the lowest crime rates in the country.”
As a newspaperman who has solicited and edited op-eds for the Wall Street Journal on three continents, I’m fairly confident that the name the Times wanted on its pro-Kerry op-ed page was not Mark Roche’s but Notre Dame’s. Which reminds us that Catholic enablers are institutions as often as individuals. Had Governor Cuomo delivered his 1984 speech at Yale or had Mark Roche been a dean at Indiana University, nobody would have paid attention.
Sometimes, to be sure, the enablers make a valid point here and there. But genuine argument is not their aim. Their aim is to get Catholics off the subject of abortion as fast as possible. As pro-life former Democratic Congressman John LaFalce puts it, “My problem with the ‘personally-opposed-but’ approach is that the people who make it spend 99CApercent of their time talking about the ‘but.’”
The list of enablers extends to some of the most prominent Catholic names in American public life. Chris Matthews of TV’s Hardball, a pro-choice Holy Cross alum, was the 2003 commencement speaker at his alma mater despite his pro-choice public record. Paul Begala, a former Bob Casey man who later worked for Bill Clinton, the most pro-abortion President in history, now promotes the personally-opposed-but line on CNN. Like so many other Catholic enablers on the blue-state side, Begala, when pressed on abortion, responds with the They’re Just As Corrupt As We Are argument, suggesting, for example, that the GOP’s housing policy is somehow equal in moral import to the Democrats’ platform plank on abortion.
Even the Catholic bishops undermine their case by, for example, appointing pro-choice Leon Panetta to serve on their National Review Board dealing with priestly abuse and a woman who is a staunch supporter of Emily’s List on a similar advisory board dealing with the protection of children.
In the aftermath of Senator Kerry’s defeat the Democrats are wondering how it is that the first Catholic nominee for President since 1960, a man who spoke glowingly of rosary beads and his days as an altar boy, lost the Catholic vote, lost the Mass-going Catholic vote by an even larger margin, and lost it by larger margins still in key swing states such as Florida and Ohio.
They have much to ponder, as do all Americans who truly care about life, for it should be clear that a Democratic Party in its current shape is not healthy for America. We need pro-life Democrats to be able to breathe again. This means that we need a Democratic leadership that doesn’t demand that Democrats vote against, among other things, judicial nominees whose only crime is their “deeply held” personal beliefs or a suspected skepticism toward the one dogma in the Democratic Party: that while all other Supreme Court decisions are malleable and must bend to the social and political agenda of the day, Roe v. Wade is holy writ.
As Democratic leaders perform their post-election postmortems, let us hope that someone poses the question Bob Casey would have asked: How different might the outcome have been if the Party’s Mario Cuomos, Mark Roches, and Paul Begalas had over the past two decades devoted as much of their passion and public commentary to the “personally opposed” as they have to the “but”?
William McGurn is a columnist for the New York Post.