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Nat Hentoff

From the beginning, so very long ago, of the 2008 presidential campaign, many of the horde of self-proclaimed independent journalists reported that the Democrats were strategically moving toward the center, seeking some sort of common ground even with pro-lifers.

Yet, when the Supreme Court this April upheld a federal ban on partial-birth abortion—once described by the pro-choice Daniel Patrick Moynihan as “minutes from infanticide”—the alarmed Hillary Clinton spoke for nearly all the Democratic presidential contenders when she announced it was “a dramatic ­departure from four decades of previous precedents safeguarding the health of pregnant women.” And, on July 17, she (along with Barack Obama and John Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth) pledged to Planned Parenthood that she would never even consider nominating anyone to the Supreme Court who would not proclaim support for Roe v. Wade.

That reminded me of Ramesh Ponnuru’s description of Democrats as “the party for whom abortion has become a kind of religion.” I would say the same of the great majority of my colleagues in the press. As Susanne Millsaps of NARAL Pro-Choice America once said in tribute: “The media has been our best friend in this fight. They claim objectivity, but I know they’re all pro-choice.”

As this heretical kind of writer who publishes in both the liberal Village Voice and the conservative Washington Times, I consider it a major story that this summer Day Gardner, president of the National Black Pro-Life Union, revealed that “since 1973, over 14 million black babies have been aborted, which is equal to the combined population of eight midwestern states.” But there were hardly any references in the media to this slaughter. For that matter, I don’t recall even the pro-life Republican candidates challenging their ­opponents to comment on this vast, homicidal ­disrespect for human life—despite the guarantee of “equal protection” in the Fourteenth Amendment and the civil-rights laws. Would the pro-choicers say all those black corpses were not persons under the ­Constitution?

There are other life-and-death issues that have been absent so far this election season from both parties’ presidential campaigns: assisted suicide and euthanasia, for example, both championed by the “Death with Dignity” advocates. And the only references I’ve seen in campaign coverage about what I called “the judicial murder” of Terri Schiavo have been attacks on the Congressional Republicans who tried, unsuccessfully, to get federal courts to review her case.

Schiavo, you remember, was the forty-one-year-old Florida woman whom the courts allowed—in the transmogrification of due process—to be terminally dehydrated and starved, though she was neither brain-dead nor comatose. In truth, I did not expect her to become a substantive campaign issue. The press, copying one another without any independent research, had convinced the majority of Americans that her gruesome forced exit was merciful.

Similarly, there has been little mention in the ­campaign of the futility doctrine that seems to have ­captured many of America’s hospitals and their ethics committees. This is an expanding value-of-life issue that, as longevity increases, will continue to involve many of us and our families. Under the futility ­doctrine, hospitals are increasingly claiming that the quality of life of ­certain patients is so minimal that these lives are no longer worth living—and so treatment should be ­discontinued.

In the course of reporting over the years on the devaluing of human life, I have interviewed Nancy Valko, a nurse in the intensive-care unit of a county ­hospital in St. Louis, who also conducts workshops on medical ethics. “Just a generation ago,” Valko observes, doctors and nurses were ethically prohibited from hastening or causing death. Family disputes and ethically gray situations occurred, but certain actions—such as withdrawing medically assisted food and water from a severely brain-damaged but non-dying person—were considered illegitimate no matter who was making the decision.

But with the rise of the modern bioethics movement, life is no longer assumed to have the intrinsic value it once did, and “quality of life” has become the overriding consideration. Over time, the ethical question “What is right?” became “Who decides?”—which has now devolved into “What is legally allowed?”

In the state of Oregon, the voters do allow assisted suicide, and there are continuing efforts in other state legislatures to follow Oregon’s lead and codify into law what Wesley J. Smith, a scholar of the value of life, calls “the conviction that ending life is a legitimate answer to the problems of human suffering.”

There are many vital issues in this presidential ­campaign: Iraq, obviously—together with health care, ­education, and the deadly virus of terrorism. But the omission of the increasing assault on the value of ­individual human life in this nation leaves legal black holes and silence on the very meaning of life.

Although I am an atheist, I am also a pro-lifer, both with regard to abortion and the quality-of-life issues. Back in 1983, I was impressed with the address that Joseph Cardinal Bernardin gave at Fordham University, in which he coined the phrase “the seamless ­garment” to speak of the affirmation of life. Many since have preferred to describe it as “a consistent ethic of life,” but Cardinal Bernardin’s original image still stays in my mind: “Nuclear war threatens life on a previously unimaginable scale; abortion takes life daily on a horrendous scale; public executions [continue] in the most advanced technological society in history; and euthanasia is now openly discussed and even advocated . . . . Each of these assaults on life has its own meaning and morality; they cannot be collapsed into one problem, but they must be confronted as pieces of a larger ­pattern.”

I also learned a great deal from another cardinal, one I was privileged to know as a friend: John Cardinal O’Connor. I wish—although I know it is not going to happen—that at least one contender for the presidency would repeat what Cardinal O’Connor asked at the Harvard Law School (not a friendly audience for him but a challenge he enjoyed) in April 1986: “How safe will the retarded be, the handicapped, the aged, the wheel-chaired, the incurably ill when the so-called quality of life becomes the determination of who is to live and who is to die? Who is to determine which life is ‘meaningful,’ which life is not? Who is to have a right to the world’s resources, to food, housing, to medical care? The prospects are frightening.”

Those frightening prospects were visible during the oral arguments in the Supreme Court’s partial­-birth-abortion case this April. The Bush administration’s solicitor general, Paul Clement, was presenting the case against this barbarous procedure. And yet, in his argument, he took care to emphasize that although this D&X (intact dilation and extraction) killing of a human being would no longer be lawful, D&E (dilation and evacuation), by which, he told the Court, 95 percent of second-trimester abortions are performed, would not be banned. Clement—speaking for a self-proclaimed pro-life administration—called this continuingly legal procedure “the gold standard of abortions.”

He did not mention that in this gold-standard ­homicide the child is dismembered while still in the womb. Soon after the attacks of September 11, ­Secretary of State Colin Powell said the terrorists were conducting a war against civilization. Of course, with dismemberment abortions still legal, public executions still going on, and quality-of-life criteria still being used to decide who should live, we ourselves are quite a ­distance from being fully civilized.

Could reducing this distance—building a true life-affirming civilization—be a winning issue for any ­candidate in this ongoing presidential campaign?

Nat Hentoff writes for the Village Voice, the Washington Times, and the United Media Syndicate.

John J. DiIulio Jr.

On questions of poverty and economics, the two best candidates—at least so far in the 2008 presidential campaign—have been Hillary Clinton and Mike Huckabee. Three questions led me to choose these candidates.

The first was, Best compared to whom? I looked at eight Democrats (Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Edwards, Gravel, Kucinich, Obama, and Richardson) and nine Republicans (Brownback, Giuliani, Huckabee, Hunter, McCain, Paul, Romney, Tancredo, and Thompson). I reviewed each candidate’s websites, books, and ­speeches, plus statements by their respective supporters and critics. I also researched their respective claims regarding relevant legislative or other deeds.

The second question I asked was, Best able to ­benefit whom? I pictured, for my voter looking for a candidate to support, low-income citizens such as those in my hometown of Philadelphia. More than one in four Philadelphians are below the federal poverty line ($17,170 a year for a three-person family). The city has 110,000 poor children and more than 25,000 children with no health insurance. In 2006, 70 percent of our public school students in eleventh grade scored below proficient in statewide standardized math and reading tests, and the average combined math and reading SAT score hit a new low: 792. In the last half-decade, some five thousand black males, ages fifteen to twenty-nine—one in every thirteen—have been shot or killed on Philly streets. The poorest Philly residents, including elderly shut-ins, live in places where most property is blighted or abandoned.

My third question was, Best as measured by which moral teachings about citizenship and government? Many of the measures I applied are cribbed from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, where it is says we have an affirmative duty to serve the common good while prudently promoting both personal responsibility and social justice. We should be neither allergic nor addicted to government. And we should demonstrate due moral regard for minimizing sinful economic inequalities and by preferentially serving the poor.

Differences among the candidates quickly emerge when they are judged by their public answers to these questions. John Edwards, for example, offers a bold plan to end poverty in America by 2036. He reasons that a more realistic federal ­poverty-line measure would increase poverty population estimates by more than a million. He calls for ­raising the minimum wage to $9.50 by 2012. He emphasizes how welfare reform helped low-income mothers but failed low-income fathers.

And yet Edwards retains too much faith in big ­government. He rightly disregards libertarian nostrums about market magic, but he wrongly dismisses lessons from Clinton-era economic-growth and antipoverty policies. Thus, his health-care plan, for instance, requires much higher taxes and far heavier federal ­mandates on employers.

Barack Obama has engaging things to say about poverty, faith, and other subjects. Engaging, however, is often as far as he goes: He pledges to provide universal health care within four years, but his plan remains vague. Joe Biden was a pleasant surprise. He appreciates how crime undercuts inner-city economic development. He favors expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) to cover children in ­families with annual incomes up to $61,950.

But Hillary Clinton bids higher on SCHIP, covering children in families with incomes up to $70,000. That’s too high. But on poverty and economics generally, she has come a long way since 1993. Clinton’s economic plan centers on strengthening middle-class families. Her Senate record is consistent with its main planks. Her muscular liberal ideas on poverty include making work pay for responsible fathers, closing the revolving prison door on commerce-killing repeat ­violent felons, and tightly administering work requirements for recent parolees.

Fortune magazine’s “Business Loves Hillary!” cover story was no pure hype. Unlike Edwards, her support for fair trade, not free trade, is not just a recipe for protectionism. (Remember, her husband got the North American Free Trade Agreement approved.) She is for raising corporate taxes, but her fine print concerns closing specific tax loopholes exploited by multinational corporations that have been showing record profits while shorting middle-class American workers.

Similarly, Clinton’s ideas about education reform—from universal preschool to college—are linked to her balanced understanding that, for all our post-1970 progress in reducing color-coded socioeconomic inequalities, unacceptable gaps remain. For example, in 2000, white households still had many times the median financial net worth that black or Latino households had: $79,400 for whites versus $7,500 for blacks and $9,750 for Latinos, when home equity is included; $22,566 for whites versus $1,116 for blacks and $1,850 for Latinos, excluding home equity. More recent census data and estimates show little change in financial gaps by race and ethnicity. In inner cities, many minority households have zero or negative financial net worth.

Clinton conceives government’s role as empowering average citizens to lead productive if not uniformly prosperous lives and ensuring that truly disadvantaged citizens are not exploited or neglected. In her long-standing view, this cannot be achieved without religion. She did not start talking about God only for this campaign, and her religious rhetoric has not been confined to supporting left-pleasing antipoverty programs.

Clinton championed the four “charitable-choice laws” that her husband signed between 1996 and 1998, each one directing federal agencies to roll back constitutionally suspect limits on grants to religious nonprofit organizations that supply social services. On December 17, 2001, she spoke at a New York City church: “The Founders had . . . faith in God, from which the ability to reason is a gift . . . . Government works in partnership with religious institutions . . . feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless.” On January 19, 2005, she preached before clergy in inner-city Boston: “But I ask you, who is more likely to go out onto a street to save some poor, at-risk child than . . . someone who believes in the divinity of every person, who sees God at work in the lives of even the most hopeless and left-behind of our children? And that’s why we need to not have a false division or debate about the role of faith-based institutions; we need to just do it and provide the support that is needed on an ongoing basis.”

Over on the Republican side, questions of poverty and economics produce interesting results. The less faith-friendly Rudy Giuliani offers a dozen of what he calls “commitments,” but most are unaccompanied by data or details regarding how to translate them into policy action. For instance, his “Health Insurance Credit” is to be “coupled” with Medicaid (how?) and will benefit millions (by when?). He plans to cut taxes like Reagan did (in 1986?).

Mitt Romney also heralds “conservative principles” and promises to repeat Reaganomics. He insists that all “individuals have responsibility for their own health care” and then promises “insurance for everyone without a tax increase,” without specifying how it will work. But on Medicaid and antipoverty programs, his gubernatorial record was fairly pragmatic. At one point, he funneled a few million dollars to local clergy who worked with high-risk youth, but the effort fizzled.

Meanwhile, the federalism-minded Fred Thompson would restart the social-policy devolution that sputtered in the mid-1990s after Newt Gingrich, as House Speaker, pushed it too far too fast. He would repeal Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, which has had little impact on students’ test scores, though it has increased federal spending on schools by more than 25 percent and generated huge compliance costs in time and money.

“Life doesn’t begin at conception and end at birth,” quips pro-life and pro-poor Mike Huckabee. “Every child deserves the opportunity to discover and use his God-given gifts and talents.” Amen. Huckabee worked at a J.C. Penney and became a Southern Baptist minister before becoming Arkansas’ lieutenant governor in 1993 and governor in 1996. The Pine Bluff church where he served for six years formed diverse community-serving partnerships to help the homeless and alleviate poverty. His wife worked as a clerk in a local ­religious hospital. In his 2007 book, From Hope to Higher Ground, he preaches: “Certainly even Americans at the edge of poverty still live better than most of the world’s population, but that doesn’t mean life for them is easy or without risks and struggles.”

Huckabee oversells only where he himself seems honestly oversold. His populist-sounding “Fair Tax” plan—essentially, a consumption tax on new goods—strikes the progressive in me as borderline bonkers. But he makes his IRS-ending, revenue-neutral case with infectious conviction and suitable scholarly citations. On guns, he is close to being an NRA purist until one examines certain stands he has taken over the years with respect to gun traffic in high-crime places where many murder victims and perpetrators alike are kids.

Huckabee marches to his own drummer, insisting that music and the arts remain central to public curricula and pushing funding for what he calls “weapons of mass instruction.” He is certainly not following pollsters or focus groups in his pleas to reform our “revenge-based criminal justice system.” His case for faith-based economic development and antipoverty policies is predicated on the constitutionally correct principle that religion should be “neither prohibited nor preferred” by government.

So, how sure am I about Huckabee and Clinton, the Arkansas-connected odd couple? Well, for their respective poverty and economics positions, I am sending Honest Mike and Sister Hillary each a check, knowing that I may be the only person in the country to support that particular duo.

John J. DiIulio Jr., first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, is Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion, and Civil Society at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Godly Republic (University of California Press).

Joseph Bottum

This is a momentous time in American history: a day of great danger, an era of great purpose. And into the weighty moment, the presidential campaign of 2008 has called—um, Ron Paul? John Edwards? Mitt Romney? Hillary Clinton? Let’s be honest and admit what we all know: The weakest set of candidates in living memory has taken the field, and we still have more than a year left of watching these people, lumbering and blumbering toward the goal line.

Even a hard-bitten soul shivers at the thought of describing them all—the elfin kookiness of Dennis Kucinich, the farmer-in-the-dell demeanor of Mike Huckabee. Look too long at their pictures, and everything about them starts to seem a symbol of their inner selves. The anger swelling under the skin-deep affability in John McCain, like a balloon about to burst. The way John Edwards advertises his good looks with those slow and heavy-lidded blinks. The thinness of Barack Obama, like an adolescent whose body hasn’t quite caught up to his height. The brush of silver at Mitt Romney’s temples, an actor sent up from central casting because he has the face to play a role. Bill Richardson’s waddled jowls, Rudy Giuliani’s turkey-thin neck—bah. Outside of novels, looks aren’t the most reliable guide to character, but these guys do seem to want a makeover.

As it happens, we don’t have to describe them all, for on the Democratic side, at least, the race appears over. Hillary Clinton has locked up the nomination. Short of catastrophe, she can’t be over­taken in the primaries. Which means (as near as I can tell, a year out from the election) that she will roll like a juggernaut into November 2008 and lose. Just lose. Hillary Clinton is not electable, and any Republican short of Ron Paul should be able to beat her.

One could point to many reasons for her likely defeat. That smile, more forced even than John McCain’s, which never seems to reach her cold, dark eyes. That whine in her voice. The lurking financial scandals: Say what you like about George Bush, but add this—he was never corrupt, personally corrupt, about money the way the Clintons have always been. Then, too, there’s her Clintonness, a sort of antidote to eight years of Bushness. I just don’t believe that Americans want the presidency in the hands of two families for twenty-four years, a tenth of our national history. And that’s to say nothing of the surveys showing that ­voters start with an enormous dislike of her. All the polls that predict her victory report there’s a strong Democratic tide running across the country. But Hillary Clinton is not ahead, pulling that tide; she’s behind, being pulled along. And she will probably fall short in the end, washed back out to sea.

Obviously, if the Democrats do manage to win the presidency, the pro-life movement loses. But if the Republicans win—well, unfortunately, it looks as though the pro-life movement still loses. I see no likely way for those who care about abortion to emerge from this campaign in anything but a weaker position in the fight against Roe v. Wade. You’d think the GOP would see a lesson in all this: When abortion was somewhere near the focus of national politics in 2000, the Republicans did well. When the issue of abortion receded in the political arena in 2006, the Democrats returned.

But there’s a reason the life issues have faded, for the war has emerged as the United States’ major political problem. From the attacks of 2001 to the presence of troops in Iraq today, questions of foreign policy and the continuing struggle against radical Islam now seem to dominate enough of American politics that even some far-right conservatives are willing to set aside their pro-life concerns to support a pro-choice candidate who promises to bring the troops home.

That’s a mistake, by the way, for the great open secret of this campaign is that Iraq doesn’t really make all that big a difference, however much the peace ­protestors want it to. The distinctions among the candidates are mostly on the margins—important, yes, but not about the war itself. Unless we go mad and elect Dennis Kucinich or Ron Paul, no president is going to order the troops home on Inauguration Day. Another set of conservatives, more toward the middle, are willing at least to contemplate supporting Hillary Clinton, precisely because they see her as more strong willed about foreign policy than some of the possible ­Republican nominees.

Not stronger than Rudy Giuliani, of course, and the odds right now are very slightly in favor of the proposition that he will be our next president. I think not, in the end, but one can put together plausible scenarios that show his election.

Here’s one: Karl Rove’s great bet, while he was running George Bush’s campaigns, was that conservatives have a natural majority in this country, and if the social conservatives show up at the polls, the Republicans do well. That’s not as true as it used to be—the voters who’ve both turned eighteen since 2004 and bothered to register to vote are signing up at nearly 70 percent for the Democrats—but it’s still close to true: The social conservatives are not going to vote for a lefty Democrat, but if they merely stay home, that Democrat will win.

The conventional wisdom has been that social conservatives will not turn out for Giuliani and by their absence give victory to Clinton. But affirmative reasons, like support for a pro-life candidate, aren’t the only things that get people to the polls. Giuliani has always been a very good negative campaigner—it goes with that hatchet-sharp Machiavellian face he wears—and a strongly stoked desire to defeat the other side can bring out the social conservatives, as well. For that matter, bad as Giuliani promises to be for social conservatives, ­Clinton would be worse.

Still, for voters concerned about the Supreme Court, the best Giuliani would do is name justices who are incidentally against Roe v. Wade. And even those ­justices would have a hard time making it through the Senate confirmation. For we shouldn’t forget that there actually is a Democratic tide running, whatever Hillary Clinton’s personal chances. A Republican president, if he got elected, could face a Senate that, by my count today, has fifty-seven Democrats. It may even be worse. A run of bad news in Iraq, a downturn in the economy, a successful tying of Bush to local Republican candidates, a residual sense of voters that if they vote for a Republican president they should vote for a Democratic senator: Add it up, and we could see the Democrats with sixty Senate seats.

At that point—a Republican president and a large Democratic majority in the Senate—the normally weird course of American politics would get even weirder. Nonstop congressional investigations of everything the president does, rejections of Cabinet members and Supreme Court justices, the Democrats freed of responsibility for actually prosecuting foreign policy—all pushed by a netroots base of leftist activists convinced that, once again, the presidential election had been stolen from them. No wonder some conservatives seem to think it would be better to go ahead and elect Hillary Clinton.

It’s thinking like this that led a number of commentators back in 2006 to say that defeat in the congressional elections would be good for the Republican party, clearing out its most corrupt members and returning it to at least some of its fiscal principles. The idea of fewer but better Republicans has never much appealed to me: I want Roe v. Wade overturned, and I’d sup with the devil to see it happen. Besides, defeat typically brings not clarity but compromise, and the presidency is too big a prize to trade for a better chance next time around.

Sam Brownback, Mike Huckabee: The early days of the race had Republicans who were strong social conservatives. But only the purity of defeat—a decadent desire—could force one to support them. Which leaves the more ambiguous cases of John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson.

What to make of them, I don’t know. McCain has always seemed to me a disaster waiting to happen. Tales of his insane bursts of anger are legendary among journalists, who have generally not reported them. But they will if he should get the nomination and then run not against his fellow Republicans but against a Democrat. And then there’s Mitt Romney. The issue of his religion has always seemed to me overplayed by the media; the ecumenism of the trenches surely reaches at least as far as the Mormon Church, and Romney won’t be rejected by social conservatives simply for his Mormonism. But there are other reasons to worry about him, beginning with his actual record on life issues and his failure to draw in the people who remain committed to other conservatives.

Which leaves Fred Thompson. He does seem ­genuinely Reaganesque—Reagan-lite, yes, but with some of that old great-communicator touch and Teflon feel that Ronald Reagan had. And on the combined issues of church-state relations, abortion, and economics, he seems (for the little we know) the best of the major candidates.

Or, at least, so far. Rudy Giuliani will have to run the table on Super Tuesday, winning nearly every primary on February 5 after losing all the ones before. Maybe he can do it. But the deeper into the winter the campaign goes, the more Thompson benefits. A Fred Thompson nomination, a slim election victory over Hillary ­Clinton, a stealth pro-lifer slipped on the Supreme Court through a Democratic Senate—that weak ­scenario is about the best a social conservative can hope for today. Everything else is bad. Very bad.

Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.

Photo from Alexander Gardner, Wikimedia Commons. Image cropped.