Friday, November 7, 2008


This marks the end of America Magazine's special Election Blog for 2008.

The magazine's website will continue to run political, and other, commentaries in its "In All Things" blog, so be sure to check in there frequently.

Sarah Palin & The GOP's Future

Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been two weeks since my last confession. I really like Sarah Palin.

Palin has been the focus of many post-mortems, most of it unfair. The only time the GOP was excited, or McCain led in the polls, was in the immediate aftermath of her selection as Veep and her debut speech at the Republican National Convention. She was spunky, attractive, could connect with the base and, even more importantly, she could caress the camera. Her convention speech was electrifying. And, the sight of a mother with five children, especially her “perfect” infant with Down’s Syndrome, was heart-warming to all but the nastiest of snobs.

Now, it turns out, Palin didn’t know Africa was a continent. And her experience as a governor was not only brief but exceptional: Alaska is not a typical state. When other governors have to balance budgets carefully, weighing the effects of a reduction in services versus a rise in taxes, Palin gets to decide how much of the state’s oil revenue should be distributed back to the citizens. The state has no income tax, no sales tax and no property tax. Palin has had little exposure to a broad swath of national policy issues because of Alaska’s differentness, but a stint as head of the Republican Governor’s Association would fill-in that deficit.

Palin’s performance in her first interview with Charlie Gibson was tenuous at best. Her follow-up with Katie Couric was a disaster. I do blame her handlers for most of this. Instead of trying to pretend that the physical proximity of Alaska to Russia was of any analytical value, or that her status as commander-in-chief of the Alaska National Guard provided her with a grounding in national security issues, her staff should have assured her that there is nothing wrong with saying, “Hey, I am a governor. We leave the foreign policy issues to the national government. And, I will be learning about those issues at the hands of a master, John McCain.” Instead, she came across as unintelligible and unintelligent, the perfect foil for a Saturday Night Live skit.

Still, those stumbles will be long forgotten in four years and will be easily attributed to her novice status. Her ability to connect with a crowd or a camera and her skill at delivering a stem-winder of a speech will remain.

Palin will also have something four years hence that she lacks today: chits. The day after the election, every state party chairperson faces the same immediate task of replenishing the coffers. And, if you are the state party chair in Ohio or Connecticut or Oregon, and you are thinking that for your big fundraising banquet next year, you want to charge $250 rather than $150 but are worried about whether or not you will be able to fill the room, call Palin. If you book her as your speaker, you will fill that room easily. The base of the party loves her and will open their checkbooks. This time next year, Palin will have acquired a lot of chits and will have the fundraising contacts that are the first step in any presidential bid.

As the GOP regroups from its devastating loss on Tuesday, and the Washington leadership of the party looks tired and out of ideas, Palin remains the one piece of exciting GOP news this year. Keep your eye on her. I would put money on the proposition that she will be their nominee in 2012.

Michael Sean Winters

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Electoral Consequences Big & Small

President-elect Obama ran a campaign that was arresting in its discipline. There were almost no leaks. But, in his very first twenty-four hours since the election, the news that he had offered the job of White House chief-of-staff to Cong. Rahm Emmanuel leaked to the press. This would have been fine if Emmanuel had accepted the job already but he understandably needs to discuss the matter with his family. So, the first major news about the next president has him waiting on someone else. Not good. Obama needs to have a stern talk with his new transition team and tell them to keep quiet or find work elsewhere, especially as the new administration takes shape.
Many Democrats were hoping to win a 60 vote, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and they fell short. This actually will help Obama. It forces him and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to negotiate with moderate Republicans like Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe from Maine, and those negotiations will help Obama govern from the center. As well, any resulting legislation will bear that all-important label "bi-partisan." Obama won the presidency by winning among Independent voters, voters who by definition resist partisan labels. Having to cross with 60-vote threshold with centrist Republican votes will help him beat back political pressures on the far left of the Democratic Party.
The strangest Senate result also gives Obama and Reid an opportunity. The good people of Alaska have evidently voted to re-elect long-time Sen. Ted Stevens, making him the first convicted felon to be sent to the Senate. The Democrats could be forgiven for wanting to let Stevens take his seat and serve as an on-going reminder of GOP corruption, and the GOP will not have the votes to expel him from the Senate on their own. But, Reid should insist that in exchange for getting Democrats to vote to expel Stevens from the Senate, he gets a big, big chit for an equal number of Republican votes on a major policy vote, say, health care reform.
Obama and the congressional Democrats have to answer a question: Do they want to govern for four years or for thirty? If they resist the efforts of liberal special interests to push legislation like the Freedom of Choice Act, centrist voters will bolt. If they studiously govern from the center, let the GOP show its most extreme side (see tomorrow’s post on the future of Sarah Palin), and demonstrate basic competence in the provision of services, Democrats can craft a governing coalition that could last a generation.

Among those who shifted from the red seats to the blue on Tuesday were religiously motivated voters. According to exit polls, Obama even increased his margins over Kerry’s numbers four years ago among those who attend church every week, a demographic that had become one of the clearest indications of voting behavior. "We see Roman Catholics being the very true swing voters -- going for Gore, then Bush, and now solidly for Barack Obama, some diversification in the white evangelical vote, and Obama making inroads among all religious attendance groups, with the largest increase among the more than weekly attenders," according to Dr. Robert Jones of Public Religion research who joined a conference call on the religious vote sponsored by the group Faith in Public Life yesterday. Indeed, Obama won Catholics 55%-44% a remarkable turnaround from 2004 when George Bush won 52% of all Catholics.
The images of people celebrating Obama’s win all around the world were heart-warming. Not so the stern unsmiling face of Russian president Dmitri Medvedev. Obama must brace himself for the hard fact that it is not in Russia’s or China’s or Iran’s interest to have a strong U.S. president, and that the leaders of these nations will act accordingly. Even here, though, it is impossible not to note Obama’s luck: the crashing price of oil will put huge strains on the Russian and Iranian societies which have been awash in petro-dollars.
Still, walking around the streets of Washington, D.C. yesterday, it was impossible not to notice a certain lightness in people’s steps, a greater readiness to smile to a stranger, and a pride that our nation had broken yet another barrier in her often uneven quest for equality. Last night, at the CVS, a group of fifty college students was camped out, quietly reading or talking, in the middle of the aisle. They were waiting for more copies of the Washington Post’s commemorative edition. When was the last time you saw college students waiting to get a newspaper?
Michael Sean Winters

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Catholics & Our President-Elect

Barack Obama’s landslide victory will require time sink in emotionally and also analytically. The exit polls will need to be adjusted to reflect the actual turnout: The numbers we had last night were skewed to the Democrats and under-counted Catholics I suspect. Still, some things are apparent.
The "faithful remnant" of the GOP is confined to those parts of the country that are the least Catholic: the deep South and the Prairie states. The states that are most Catholic – Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania - are also the states that are the bluest of the blue. Obama’s margin in Pennsylvania was the most impressive of any of the large contested states as he won there by eleven points. It is especially noteworthy that in Lackawanna County, home of Scranton bishop Joseph Martino who was one of the country’s fiercest episcopal critics of voting for Obama because of his views on abortion, Obama won 63% to 36%. This was an increase over John Kerry’s 2004 margin of 56% to 43% in Lackawanna. In neighboring Luzerne County, home of Wilkes-Barre, the numbers were similar: Obama took 54% of the vote, besting Kerry’s 51% four years ago.
Latino Catholics appear to have been decisive in flipping three states from red to blue: New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada. Colorado’s nine electoral votes swung into the Obama column with a strong 53% to 46% win and in New Mexico the margin was even larger: 57% for Obama to McCain’s 42%. In Nevada, 55% of the vote went to Obama and McCain took 43%. If Obama delivers comprehensive immigration reform, these three states and their 19 electoral votes will be blue for a generation. They will also likely be joined by Arizona, which might have joined the shift this year had it not been for the home turf advantage McCain enjoyed. Nine points separated the candidates in Arizona, and the state’s ten electoral votes are low-hanging fruit for the Democrats next election.
Latinos are the fastest growing part of the electorate and young voters are just beginning to define their political loyalties. Obama won both groups convincingly: 67% of Latinos nationwide and 66% of voters age 18-29. That bodes well for the future of the Democratic Party.
Enough of the numbers. Watching our new President-Elect last night, I was struck by his bearing, his dignity. He did not seem overwhelmed by what had happened. In front of our very eyes, he shifted almost effortlessly from being the focus of the hopes of the Democrats to becoming the focus of the hopes of the nation. He recalled Ann Nixon Cooper, an Atlanta woman who is 106 years old and all the changes she had witnessed in her long life and what this election meant to her. He used her story to point to the future, wondering what changes his daughters might encounter if they were given such length of years. It was an elegant and organic moment that achieved the first task of political leadership: articulating the present circumstances by looking to history and finding in its lessons a narrative that points to the future.
It has been an amazing run and in the next few days we will continue to examine the consequences of the race before taking a break next week. Readers are encouraged to send in your election night stories and to write what this result means to you and what you believe it means for the country. Last night was a watershed and the air is filled with hopes but also questions this morning. The challenges that face our president-elect are mind-numbing for me, if not for him, but we can all look with anticipation at what awaits our nation around the corner of history.
Michael Sean Winters

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Race & the Election

This past Sunday, I worshipped at St. Augustine’s church here in Washington, D.C. It is the oldest congregation of black Catholics in the city. The pastor did not preach about the election: He didn’t have to. The anticipation in the room, the smiles, the nervousness, were all immediately obvious. I wondered how this congregation, which is very conservative, would have responded if they had been told that abortion was the only issue that mattered in this election? Yesterday, when I heard the audio of Bishop Finn of Kansas City saying that voting for Obama risked one’s eternal salvation, I wished he had come to St. Augustine’s to say that.

I wonder if Bishop Finn knows who Fannie Lou Hamer was and why today, election day, some of us will have this patron saint of electoral justice in the forefront of our minds. I wonder what Bishop Martino of Scranton would say to Bob Moses if he ran into him at the Au Bon Pain on Harvard Square. Black folk see this election in a different light, and they are not wrong to do so.

Yesterday, I called a black friend who is a priest and asked how he felt about this historic election. “I have my Obama cufflinks already to wear!” he exclaimed. “But, don’t print that until I have a diocese.” He broke out in a full-throttled guffaw. He, like most of the black clergy I know, is very conservative doctrinally but today’s election strikes a different, non-ideological chord. There was joy in his voice when we compared likely electoral college totals.

Today, America proves that race is not an insuperable barrier to political power and we deal a strong body blow to racism. That is an achievement per se. And the bishops who have insisted that abortion is the only issue, and that only their approach to the issue is morally permissible, they should think of Hamer and Moses and Dr. King and John Lewis today. It is not too difficult to say that while they may disagree with Sen. Obama about his pro-choice stance, and disagree forcefully, they join the rest of the nation in being properly thrilled that race is no longer an impediment to winning a presidential election in America. It is a great day to be alive. Everybody should be singing: This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Michael Sean Winters

Watching the Vote Totals

Happy Election Day! My American flag is unfurled on the porch and I will be heading over to the Riverdale Elementary School once the morning rush dies down to cast my vote.

Of course, we know now that there is no more “election day.” Almost a third of the ballots have already been cast by early voting. These will not affect tonight’s exit polls: I am assured by George Stephanopoulos at ABC News that the exit polls will include phone polls of those who have already voted. (Nate Silver at says that exit polls are unreliable in any event, they lean Democratic, and predicted a big Kerry victory four years ago but that is a different story.) On such matters, no one is smarter than Stephanopoulos.

The early voting may not distort the exit polls but it does already tell us a lot about the final electorate in 2008. In Clark County, Nevada, we know that Democrats account for 52% of the 391,936 ballots already cast and Republicans account for 30.6% with 17.4% other or no affiliation. The total early votes represent 71% of the total 2004 vote in that county and Kerry carried it 52%-46%. So, we can figure out, I think, that Democrats are going to have a big turnout in Clark County and that it will go more heavily for Obama than it did for Kerry. In Florida, we know that of the more than 4 million votes already cast, 45.5% are from Democrats and 37.6% are from Republicans with 16.9% other or no affiliations. This is 53.8% of the total 2004 vote. So turnout is heavy in both states and the increased turnout among Democrats bodes well for Obama’s chances in these two states won by Bush four years ago.

Georgia has the most intriguing early voting data. Already, more than 2 million Georgians have cast their ballots. In 2004, 3.3 millions Georgians voted, so the early vote this year is already 60% of the total vote four years ago. Most significant is the racial breakdown in Georgia. In 2004, according to CNN exit poll, blacks were 25% of Georgia’s electorate while 70% were white. But, in 2008 early voting, only 60% are white and black turnout is 35.1% of early votes. That huge increase among black voters will not be unique to Georgia and you can expect record turnouts that break most pollsters models of “likely voters.” Will it be enough to turn Georgia, a state George W. Bush won by 17 points? I don’t know. But, in states that are less red but still have significant black populations from North Carolina to Indiana, I suspect that Obama will do better than the polls are predicting.

So, what to look for tonight? Polls close in part of Indiana and Kentucky at 6 p.m. EST. But, don’t look for the networks to call Indiana quickly. You may recall that in the primaries, Hillary Clinton had a double digit lead when the early results came in, but the tally from the northwest corner of the state, where the polls close an hour later, narrowed the race considerably and she eked out a one-point victory. At 7 p.m., Virginia closes, a state where Obama has maintained a significant lead and a state where they report their vote early. If the networks call Virginia for Obama within the hour, McCain’s chances will be mighty slim. If McCain pulls off an upset in Virginia, it is going to be a long night. Georgia also closes its polls at 7 p.m. and if that state is not called for McCain within the first half hour, Obama is riding the wave.
So, where will we be this time tomorrow? And, when do you think the networks will call the race? I am predicting Obama will win with 381 electoral votes, as black turnout carries him to victories in swing states North Carolina, Indiana and Missouri, Latinos put New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada in his column, and a better ground game turns the more rural Big Sky states of North Dakota and Montana. And, the race will be called around 9:20 when Colorado is put into the Obama column. Readers are invited to post their predictions!

Michael Sean Winters

Monday, November 3, 2008

A First-Time Voter

While most of the nation is gearing up to cast their ballots tomorrow, I am one of many Americans who have already cast their ballots. As a resident of Pennsylvania living outside the Commonwealth, I sent in an absentee ballot so that I could remain in Washington to see the results.

Casting my ballot was certainly not the first time that I have been involved in the political realm, as myself and many my age got involved in activism in high school. Technically, it was not even the first time I have voted (I turned 18 in January, enough time to vote in, and work the polls for, the Pennsylvania primary). But at the risk of sounding melodramatic, there was something special about voting in a presidential election; participating in an event that is only being performed for the 56th time in the history of this country. I recognize that around this time every election there are always stories written bemoaning the low-voter turnout in the United States, but as a recently enfranchised voter, I think that the point really does need to be made. At some point many voters no longer feel that voting is a significant action. It is an process that, though it concerns the common good, is all too often performed by a fraction of the population. Yet I feel as though it is not an overstatement to say that voting is a type of communion (small "c") for the American people. It is a collective action that is not merely symbolic, but real and appreciable; a ritual. It is ironic, perhaps, that the action that can effect the course of the entire society, the ultimate expression of public support or disapproval, is made in the confines of a private voting booth.

Though I acknowledge that my comments sound a little like Jimmy Stewart's filibuster in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, I do not think that they are fueled solely by naivete or unjaded optimism. I sincerely believe that voting can effect policy, and hope that the American people realize the vital role they play. When the campaign rhetoric was at its best this election, both candidates made an effort to appeal to the civic responsibility that voting fulfills. To paraphrase a different sort of Constitution, we as citizens are called to "full, conscious, and active participation" in our electoral process. The work that this nation does depends on the willingness of its citizens to participate in the democracy, and I am proud to join the ranks of the enfranchised.

Alex Pazuchanics

Best (Or Worst?) Campaign Highlights

There is no shortage of stupid campaign decisions, outrageously sleazy tactics, candidate meltdowns, and pitifully evasive debate replies. Picking the best – or is it worst? – such example is difficult because, as they say in the military, the environment is target rich. But here goes.

The award for the most pitifully evasive debate reply is a tie: Barack Obama and John McCain. Both men declined in two successive debates to answer how they might have to delay or alter their campaign pledges given the fact that the economic meltdown had drained the U.S. Treasury of an unanticipated $700 billion, to say nothing of the reduced tax revenue we can expect this year due to the recession. Both candidates danced and spinned but neither even approximated an answer. Joe Biden gets an honorable mention for suggesting a reduction in foreign aid, which is an entirely negligible part of the federal budget to begin with and is a cut that would offend no voters. Yeesh.

Worst candidate meltdown? Democratic Congressman Tim Mahoney from Florida rode to victory two years ago after incumbent GOP Representative Mark Foley got caught sending sexually suggestive emails to congressional pages. You would think Mahoney would have understood the ability of a sloppy personal life to adversely affect your career but….there he was, facing the cameras admitting multiple extra-marital affairs, although he denies firing an aide when their relationship went south and also denied paying $121,000 in hush money. Mahoney is now being sued for divorce and is on his way to an early retirement from the Congress. Good riddance!

The prize for the most ignorant attack came when GOP operatives accused the Obama campaign of “re-designing” the American flag to include a giant “O” for Obama, and placing these new flags behind Obama at a press conference. These GOP operatives thought the flag re-design was the height of hubris, an insult to America, another example of Obama’s elitism. Alas, the flag in question was the state flag of Ohio where Obama was holding his news conference.

The race for most outrageously sleazy campaign tactic was all ready to be engraved with Sarah Palin’s name for her infamous reference to “palling around with terrorists.” But, Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina topped that with an ad that implied her rival, Kay Hagen, went to a fundraiser sponsored by a group called “Godless Americans” when the group played no role in sponsoring it, although one of its members attended the event. The worst was yet to come: The ad finished with a photo of Hagen and a voice-over saying “There is no God!” But, the voice was not Hagen’s; it was just made to sound like hers. Now, that is sleazy.

Most stupid campaign decision? Not to vet Sarah Palin. Her near total ignorance of important national and international issues was an on-going thorn for the McCain campaign. While her many political gifts were apparent from the beginning, her lack of gravitas put McCain’s own judgment into question. The choice of a running mate is the one presidential-level decision a candidate makes, and McCain flubbed his.

So, dear readers, shout out with your best and worst campaign moments.

Michael Sean Winters

Saturday, November 1, 2008

California Catholics Should Oppose Gay Marriage

My fellow California Catholics will face a big decision Tuesday: whether to affirm or deny the traditional definition of marriage. The state’s voters will consider Proposition 8, an initiative that would overturn the state Supreme Court’s May 15 ruling to legalize same-sex marriage. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the state’s Catholics will likely play a pivotal role in its outcome:

Catholics, who make up nearly a quarter of likely voters, also could make a difference, DiCamillo said. Catholics opposed Prop. 8 by a 48 to 44 percent margin, but that's down from 55 to 36 percent a month ago.

When the Proposition 22 same-sex marriage ban was on the ballot in 2000, Catholics were split almost evenly in the final pre-election poll, DiCamillo said. But exit polls showed Catholics actually voting for Prop. 22 by 15 points.

"The Sunday before the election could be important, since people may hear priests and ministers preaching against same-sex marriage," he said.

My family and many of my friends still live in the Bay Area, and I am familiar with the arguments against Prop. 8. The chief argument is that marriage should be defined by an individual’s desires and wishes. In its majority opinion, the California Supreme Court wrote,

These core substantive rights include, most fundamentally, the opportunity of an individual to establish – with the person with whom the individual has chosen to share his or her live – an officially recognized and protected family possessing mutual rights and responsibilities and entitled to the same respect and dignity accorded a union traditionally designated as marriage.

In the words of gay writer Andrew Sullivan, the terms of the court’s decision are a “watershed.” Previous marriage law had distinguished between gay and straight. The court’s ruling doesn’t. It posits that “the individual citizen … is defined as prior to his or her sexual orientation.”

Sullivan gets it half right. The court’s decision is a watershed, but not for the reason he described. The logic of the court’s decision, that of contractual law, is a common one in the legal world. Multiple parties discuss terms of a deal and sign a contract. Landlords and tenants operate on these terms, as do employers and employees. Whether the parties involved are gay or straight is irrelevant; the individual comes first.

What makes the court’s decision a watershed is not its logic, but rather its application.

Marriage had not been treated under the law as a purely private affair. It was understood to have private and public purposes. Marriage wasn’t just about the parties’ happiness; it was also about a common good – the begetting and proper raising of children. The gender of the parties, therefore, mattered. One party should be female, the other male. (Unsurprisingly, the California ruling severs the cord between marriage and children; as Sullivan notes, it establishes a definition of family “in which reproduction and children are not necessary.”)

Supporting this traditional understanding of marriage is reason enough to oppose gay marriage. As any Catholic knows, our private actions should be oriented toward the common good, especially as they the most vulnerable members of society. Just consider the consequences of no-fault divorce laws, which are governed by a contractual logic similar to that of gay marriage. These laws have harmed millions of children since their imposition 40 years ago. As Adam Thomas and Isabel Sawhill noted, if family structure had remained unchanged from 1970 to 1998, the child-poverty rate would have been 13.9 percent rather than 18.3 percent.

But there is also a specifically Catholic reason to oppose same-sex marriage. As Pope Benedict XVI points out, traditional marriage promotes authentic human freedom. It does this not as gay marriage does, by denying the real differences between men and women. Rather, it does this by affirming those differences and embracing them for their unitive and procreative ends. After all, what makes humans more free than becoming God-like, begetting children, and ensuring the future of humanity? As the California Catholic Bishops wrote in their statement in favor of Proposition 8,

we need to recall that marriage mirrors God's relationship with us-and that marriage completes, enriches and perpetuates humanity. When men and women consummate their marriage they offer themselves to God as co-creators of a new human being. Any other pairing-while possibly offering security and companionship to the individuals involved is not marriage. We must support traditional marriage as the source of our civilization, the foundation for a society that can be home to all human beings, and the reflection of our relationship with God.

The differences between the two types of marriage should be clear. Gay marriage represents, as Pope Benedict notes, “anarchic freedom.” Traditional marriage represents authentic freedom. This is in no way means that Catholics, or anyone, should disparage gay couples and their legitimate feelings. Yet California Catholics should understand the true nature of marriage, realize its implications, and vote accordingly.

Mark Stricherz

Friday, October 31, 2008

McCain's Collapsing Campaign

One of the best aces in the hole for the Republican party has been their Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) operation. In 2004, I was working on a congressional race and the final weekend, an independent poll had the race tied but we lost by 8 points because the GOP deployed their famed 72-hour plan. Karl Rove had devised the 72-hour GOTV operation to make sure GOP voters got to the polls in critical swing districts. They made our GOTV efforts look like very amateurish as literally hundreds of GOP volunteers descended upon our district with state-of-the-art voter lists.

This morning’s Washington Post reports that the McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee are putting less money into their GOTV efforts and using that money for a wave of final television ads aimed at late deciding voters. This decision may make sense for the McCain campaign: The only way they can win this is if virtually all the undecided voters break his way so raising doubts about Obama in the last weekend of the campaign is his only option. But, why would the RNC give up one of its strongest cards when it has House and Senate races on the ballot also?

I have always doubted the efficacy of television ads at the presidential level. There are so many ways to get independent information about the candidates, there is so much press coverage, the debates garnered a great deal of attention, people discuss the issues at the barber shop and in the grocery line. TiVo has even further diminished the reach of broadcast advertising. And, most ads run during local news programs, and those are the people who are most likely to be larger consumers of news and therefore have plenty of information about the candidates already.

Ads can accomplish some things. They can be used to fill in biographical details, which is one of the principal ways Obama has used them. They can be used to raise doubts about an opponent, which is the principal way the McCain camp has used them. Both tasks are better done earlier in the campaign.

The final weekend of the campaign is about building up enthusiasm among your supporters to make sure they get to the polls. That is why these huge Obama rallies bode so ill for McCain. The Obama campaign appears fired up. They have the most extensive GOTV organization in memory. And, in states with early voting, the people who attend the rallies go en masse to the local polls and cast their ballots.

One of the good things about our unnaturally long campaign process is that voters can tell how the candidate manages a large organization, what kind of strategic decisions they make, and how they implement those decisions. The McCain campaign has made a hash of some of its most important decisions from the vice-presidential selection to this latest decision to take resources away from the GOTV effort that they know has worked in the past. And the constant in-fighting within the McCain campaign continues to attract the press which loves to report on intramural warfare and prevents the campaign from getting its message out.

The Obama campaign, on the other hand, has been a model of strategic planning and execution. When was the last time you heard a story about in-fighting within the Obama camp? The emails and text messages from the campaign come regularly, advising people about how to register to vote, deadlines, upcoming events, etc. And the message of the campaign has been consistent across the long 18 months of Obama’s quest.

If the way you run a campaign tells us anything about how you will run the White House, Obama is looking better all the time.

Michael Sean Winters

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Abortion and the 527s

In 2004, a grassroots organization in Ohio called “Catholics for Kerry” asked the campaign to send a surrogate to one of their events. They were told, “We don’t do white churches.” Turns out, if you “don’t do white churches” you also don’t get to do the White House.

This year, you don’t have to ask twice if you are a religiously motivated voter and you want some attention from the Democrats. Several groups have sprung up to articulate and amplify those parts of Catholic social teaching that correspond with more progressive policies and they are taking to the airwaves to promote their message.

Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good has been busy all election season, hosting conference calls with reporters, preparing voter guides and now running a campaign that includes billboards, print ads and most importantly an extensive radio campaign. For samples, click here. As you can guess from the group’s name, the ads focus on the need to replace the social Darwinism that has reigned in America lo these many years since Reaganomics first began its idolatry of the free market with social policies that bring people together. Solidarity, not competition, is the theme and it could scarcely be more resonant as the nation comes to grips with the greatest economic challenge since the Great Depression. The ad campaign is running in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Missouri.

The group Faith in Public Life is mounting a ten-state ad campaign on Christian radio stations. The ad states: “We need to ask ourselves what it really means to be pro-life and help move the conversation beyond bumper sticker slogans…It's time for Democrats and Republicans to come together around solutions based on results, not rhetoric. Please learn more by visiting” The website includes statements from a host of religious leaders about the need to find some common ground on abortion. has been busy on the airwaves also. This group is the brainchild of Mara Vanderslice, who won the hearts of many religiously motivated Democrats in 2004 when she cheerfully served in the often thankless job of religious outreach director for the Kerry campaign. They are more explicitly partisan – they have endorsed Obama - and they have been running ads for a couple of months on Christian radio, highlighting Obama’s faith as much as his policy positions, making him familiar to a largely evangelical audience.

Voices from the right have been busy as well. “Catholic Answers” is distributing voter guides again this year. Randall Terry, the pro-life activist, has issued a document called “Faithful Catholic Citizenship” that reflects what he calls “the authentic magisterium,” a not so subtle jab at the U.S. Bishops’ document “Faithful Citizenship.” He also has issued “An appeal to Catholic priests” – but viewer discretion is advised. In the video Terry stands before an altar and displays an aborted fetus, which struck this viewer as tasteless, turning a tragedy into a prop.

I am no believer in averting our gaze from the horror of abortion, but the issue between Catholics in Alliance and Randall Terry is not whether abortion is good or bad but how we can best approach the issue. Some were moved when they watched “Silent Scream” and others were repulsed, but in a democracy the key is to convince and to do so in a way that respects the views of those with whom we disagree. My friends on the Left and my friends on the Right disagree about how to advance the pro-life cause but both groups should enjoy the presumption of good faith in their earnestness to prevent abortion.

Michael Sean Winters

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

We Need a New Type of War on Poverty

City Journal
has a story arguing that the country does not need another war on poverty. Because LBJ’s War on Poverty treated the poor as victims rather than citizens, it fostered dependency rather than empowerment. Over at First Things’ blog, Amanda Shaw endorses author Stephen Malanga’s thesis:

The problem, of course, is that many things have been tried, and the unsuccessful ones are being dusted off and re-gifted to the American public; if we don’t know precisely what does work, we certainly do know what doesn’t.

One problem with Malanga’s and Shaw’s argument is its premise that “the federal government lost its War on Poverty.” This is highly misleading. Poverty rates actually fell in the 1960s. In 1960, more than a fifth of Americans were poor; in 1969, one in eight were. See the accompanying chart below.

Another problem with their argument is the claim that the Republican-led policies of the 1990s succeeded. Welfare reform took millions off the dole; new police tactics and strategies cut the crime rate. For all of the good that these policies achieved, they did not reduce the poverty rate significantly.

Yet if Malanga and Shaw are to be believed, the policies that reduced poverty failed, while those that have not succeeded. This is the logic of Orwell's Ministry of Truth.

It is largely true that Barack Obama’s anti-poverty proposals (and John McCain’s for that matter) would not help the poor much. Community Development block grants rarely bring jobs to a neighborhood; at best, they shore up the local housing stock. Extra spending on urban education, such as to build gold-plated schools, won’t raise student achievement much. Such programs are aimed more at middle-class political constituencies than the marginalized.

It is true that some of the War on Poverty’s policies failed. As Nicholas Lemann in The Promised Land pointed out, its maximum feasible participation clause posited a link between political and economic empowerment that does not exist. It might have given state and local officials the impression that they should make it easier to get and stay on welfare.

And it is true that some of Malanga’s proposals could reduce the poverty rate. More federal funds should go for prisoner re-entry programs and charter schools; tighter standards should be applied to federal public housing.

Yet Malanga is silent on why those policies work: acculturation. Their aim is to instill middle-class mores and habits into the down and out. For all of the talk about the poor’s economic needs, their cultural and spiritual needs are neglected. As this is an era of family breakdown, as Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam have noted, such policies are doubly necessary. (These policies are also surely consistent with one of the goals of subsidiarity, the Catholic principle in which a “community of a higher order” (i.e. the federal government) supports but does not supplant a community of a lower order” (i.e. local government or agencies.)

Although the 1960s War on Poverty failed politically, one of its guiding principles did not. Unlike its 1990s counterpart, it conceived of the poor in their totality (or near totality). The elderly poor, the white rural poor, the black urban poor – all were included in its purview.

What the country surely needs now is a program with the best of the old and new: the scope of LBJ’s policies with an acculturation strategy aimed at bolstering the poor’s families and institutions.

Mark Stricherz

Is The Race Over?

Is it over? Of course not. A single, dreadful news cycle could still turn the race quickly back towards McCain. But, the numbers are daunting to say the least.

The first problem for McCain is that virtually every competitive swing state is a state that George W. Bush carried last election. Put differently, all the states that John Kerry won in 2004 are solidly in the Obama camp. McCain continues to contest Pennsylvania, but Obama leads there by a margin of 52.1% to 41.6% according to the average of statewide polls published by (and from which all figures in this post are taken.) What is striking about the Pennsylvania spread is not only the fact that it is in double digits, but that Obama has cleared the 50% threshold. That means in the remaining days, McCain would have to convince voters who have already decided to back Obama to reconsider their choice and change their minds. That is tough to do this close to the election.

Other swing states tell a similar tale. In Colorado, Obama only leads by 6 points but he has 51.5% of the RCP average. In the critical state of Ohio, Obama’s numbers float just above, or just below, the majority line: in today’s average, Obama has 49.8% to McCain’s 43.4% but he would probably rather still have yesterday’s average which had him at 50.3% to McCain’s 44.3%. It is difficult to see how McCain will win either state unless Obama commits a game-changing self-inflicted wound.

In Florida, Obama leads McCain 48.4% to 45.1%. It is conceivable that all those who have not yet made up their minds could break to McCain, but it is doubtful. In Indiana, Obama’s lead is even narrower – 47.4% to 46.0%. In both states, McCain would only need to convince presently undecided voters to come his way, which is why his campaign is trying still to cast doubts about Obama’s readiness to lead.

The nationwide polls vary all the time but most of that is just white noise. They go up a little or down a little, but tracking polls have a relatively small daily sample size so such fluctuations are inherent in the exercise. As Nate Silver pointed out, on any given day, the tracking polls reflect the views of 3,539 respondents but the statewide polls that came out yesterday reflected more than 22,000 interviews. So, the statewide polls are likely to be more accurate. More importantly, the popular vote does not elect the president, the Electoral College does, so the statewide surveys are the only ones that matter.

The Obama campaign is relying upon heavy turnout from first-time voters, especially from those who have been under-represented in the past, especially poor blacks and young people. And, voting is not always an easy thing to do, as a story out of North Carolina shows.

So, it ain’t over until the fat lady sings as the saying goes. But, the fat lady is in her dressing room and she has just finished her make-up.

Michael Sean Winters

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Palling Around With Neo-Nazis

Daniel Cowart and Paul Schlesselman were charged yesterday with threatening to assassinate Barack Obama. The two men are neo-Nazis and the craziness of their plot, from its fixation with numerology to its campy costuming (the two intended to wear white tuxedos and top hats while slaughtering Obama and 102 other black Americans) should not encourage us to ignore its hatefulness, and the sources of that hatefulness.

To be clear: No one technically “palled around” with these neo-Nazis. Sarah Palin did not go moose hunting with Cowart and Schlesselman, nor did her allies in the press nor her allies in the press, from Sean Hannity to Mark Stricherz, go bar hopping with the duo. There was no “palling around” because there was no casual relationship. There was something actually far worse: a causal relationship. For, surely, one of the mitigating factors Cowart’s and Sclesselman’s attorneys will point to is the fact that for several weeks a Governor of one of the fifty states, who had secured her party’s nomination for the vice-presidency of the nation, and a variety of serious media outlets had broadcast as newsworthy and significant the “fact” that Barack Obama “palled around” with terrorists.

We all know that terrorists are enemies of the United States so someone who “pals around” with them must at the very least be aiding and abetting the terrorists. Isn’t that what Palin meant to suggest? Young men and women wearing the uniform of the United States are engaged currently in two wars fighting terrorists who threaten our nation. Why should we stand idly by while one of the terrorists’ allies stealthily wins political support when our brothers and sisters are fighting against the same terrorists abroad?

You can hear the objection: We never told anyone to kill! We never told anyone to purchase a short-barreled shotgun, or two handguns, or a rifle and ammunition (all of which were found in Cowart’s and Schlesselman’s possession)! True enough. But, it requires a willful ignorance not to know that questioning the patriotism of the first black candidate for president might capture the attention of racist haters, that suggesting a casual connection between Obama and terrorism was a variety of hate-mongering, and that, long after it had been demonstrated that there was no meaningful relationship between Obama and Ayers, continuing to raise the issue amounted to shouting “fire” in a crowded arena. You can drive one hour from our nation’s capital (to the north or south, I might add) and find KKK and other racist memorabilia. The arena of racism is a crowded one and shouting “fire” is literally incendiary.

I do not believe that any of those who rehearsed the Ayers story wanted Obama dead. I also believe that their language was designed to raise doubts in some, even at the risk of raising hate in others. Such language is most certainly not exculpatory for these neo-Nazis, but is certainly a mitigating factor. I recognized all along, what Mr. Cowart and Mr. Schlesselman did not recognize, that the Ayers story was merely an attempt at character assassination, not real assassination. It was merely a revival of McCarthyite smear tactics, but no one told the neo-Nazis it was just a smear campaign. The confusion should not let Cowart and Schlesselman off the hook for their criminal acts and intents, but neither should it excuse the shameful acts and intents of those who stoked their hate.

Michael Sean Winters

The "Real" America?

The last several weeks have seen an increasingly more vicious ratcheting up of the rhetoric between the campaigns and their surrogates. In particular, comments made by three Republican women over the last 10 or so days has created a controversy . On Thursday of last week, Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin said the following at a campaign rally: "We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation". That same day, Representative Michele Bachman, a Republican Congresswoman from Minnesota, said that there were "anti-American" members of Congress, implying that there was a connection between "liberal" and "anti-American". Later that weekend, Nancy Pfotenhauer, a spokeswoman for the McCain campaign, referred to the parts of Virginia outside of Northern Virginia as "real Virginia".

All three of these statements, and the defenses made on behalf of them in the subsequent days indicate a dangerous trend in political name-calling. Democrats have gotten used to certain names thrown at them by Republicans (East Coast/West Coast/ Massachusetts Liberal, Big City Boss), but to call the very spaces that they are from "un-American" or not "real" America is to go beyond the pale. It is a new breed of geographic McCarthyism that exacerbates the already tenuous divide between red states and blue states.

What exactly is meant by "real" or "pro-" America? One of my favorite sites for political information,, provided an interesting demographic definition. Using information from the US Census, statistician Nate Silver looked at the ethnic make-up of the cities visited by Palin and Obama since the time that Palin was announced as the VP nominee. Interestingly enough, most were whiter than the US population as a whole, and most were smaller communities instead of big cities.

Palin, whether she intended to or not, was framing urban America as something not quite "American". Pfotenhauer did likewise by suggesting that Northern Virginia, including the urbanized areas of Arlington and Alexandria, were somehow less Virginian than the rest of the Commonwealth.

The bias against the urban space is not new. From the days of Jefferson, there has been an idealized version of America that focuses on rural and small town life. The Republican party has used anti-urban rhetoric with varying degrees of success over the last 150 years. For example, fear of "urban" Democrat Al Smith was effective in contributing to his loss in the 1928 election. Sometimes the strategy backfires, however. In 1884, The Republican criticism of the Democratic Party as the party of "rum, Romanism, and Rebellion" enraged New York City Catholics to the point that they handed the Republicans their first loss in the presidential race since the Civil War.

Coming from a suburb of a Midwestern city to the BosWash Megalopolis, I have found that the Eastern Seaboard is in no way less "American" than the part of the country I come from. In fact, its heterogeneity and multiplicity of ideas (including some that may occasionally be unpopular) makes it American. The diversity that makes up a place like Northern Virginia speaks to the way that people with different cultural histories can come together and provide individuality within community. Catholics, with our historic American roots in the urban space, know this fact better than others, and should be the first to defend the diversity of the city not as "un-American", but simply a part of the American experience.

As McCain and the Republicans get more desperate, I would anticipate more tactics of this nature. Playing on anti-urban bias, particularly against a candidate who made his political name on the South Side of Chicago, will become a more desirable action as the election draws closer. In an attempt to rally the base, the Republicans will try to play to the apprehension rural and suburban voters have for urban lifestyles. The best we can hope for is that all voters can see beyond the "un-American" label to cast their ballots on the issues.

Alex Pazuchanics

Monday, October 27, 2008

Should Archbishop Chaput Criticize McCain?

Last Friday, I argued that Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s criticisms of Barack Obama have been misunderstood as partisan. In response, reader Joseph J. Cleary II wrote:

When the church leadership takes the jump from enunciating clear moral policy to “implying” political votes for a party or candidate, they inevitably miss the mark.

I take Cleary’s point: church leaders should not imply votes for or against any candidate. To do so would be to violate the spirit of church consensus. As Michael Sean Winters noted accurately, The bishops’ document "Faithful Citizenship" says, "In fulfilling these responsibilities, the Church’s leaders are to avoid endorsing or opposing candidates or telling people how to vote.”

Yet contra Michael, Chaput has not urged Catholics to vote against Obama. Instead, the archbishop has criticized the Democratic candidate’s position on abortion, as well as his supporters. Opposing a candidate and criticizing his policies one are not the same. Criticism means disapproval; it doesn’t mean opposition. Most of us criticize candidates regularly; this doesn’t mean we won’t vote for them.

Naturally, this raises the question: Why hasn’t Archbishop Chaput criticized John McCain for his support of another evil -- federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. Last month, Fran Maier, the chancellor of the Denver archdiocese, explained the archbishop’s decision this way:

In fact, the archbishop has voiced his criticism of embryonic stem cell research directly to Sen. McCain. He’s had no similar invitation or opportunity to meet with Sen. Obama. Moreover, the Republican Party platform rejects embryonic stem cell research. In fact, anyone interested in the contrasts between the two party platforms on this and related life issues simply needs to compare them.

Fran’s words invite questions. Would Chaput not have criticized Obama publicly if he had agreed to meet with the archbishop? Did Obama reject Chaput’s offer to meet with the archbishop?

In my reading of the evidence, Chaput is not a partisan. But surely he could explain his position about public criticism of candidates and their positions on various evils more fully.

Mark Stricherz

What October Surprise?

Democrats had been worried about an "October Surprise" in which the GOP would mount some kind of foreign policy crisis to scare the electorate and stimulate support for John McCain. Well, yesterday, U.S. forces crossed an international boundary to pursue terrorists into Syria. I read about it this morning on page A9 of the Hartford Courant. So, much for the October Surprise.

Michael Sean Winters

Prelates Meltdown

First Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput criticized Democratic nominee by name and suggested that those who support him have “done a disservice to the Church, confused the natural priorities of Catholic social teaching, undermined the progress pro-lifers have made, and provided an excuse for some Catholics to abandon the abortion issue…”

Then, Scranton Bishop Joseph Martino interrupted a forum trying to discuss the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document “Faithful Citizenship.” That document was adopted by the entire hierarchy last November with 97.8 percent of the bishops voting in favor of its passage. But, according to Bishop Martino "No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese…The USCCB doesn't speak for me."

Now, Bishop Rene Gracida, the retired bishop of Corpus Christi, has made a commercial that states no Catholic can vote for a pro-abortion candidate and that “Barack Hussein Obama is a pro-abortion candidate.” Bishop Gracida, you may recall, made such a mess of his diocese that he found himself in civil court being sued by his brother bishops in Texas. And, his radio ad is being distributed by Randall Terry, famous for starting Operation Rescue. “I want you to just let a wave of intolerance wash over you,” Terry said in 1993. “I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good.... Our goal is a Christian nation. We have a Biblical duty, we are called by God, to conquer this country. We don't want equal time. We don't want pluralism.” Charming.

Bishop Gracida and Terry deserve each other. It is hard to believe that the reference to Obama’s unfortunate middle name served any useful, still less Christian, purpose. But, while they may at the bottom of the slope, Chaput and Martino are on the same slope: They fail to see why it is inappropriate for clergy to endorse candidates by name.

It is undoubtedly the role of the hierarchy and clergy to help the laity form their conscience. But, selecting a candidate is the end of the process of conscience formation. The prelates have allowed their concern for abortion, which is understandable, to color their assessment of the value of different approaches to the issue, which is up for debate, leading them to oppose Obama by name in public, which is inappropriate.

Why is it inappropriate? The bishops’ document “Faithful Citizenship” says, “In fulfilling these responsibilities, the Church’s leaders are to avoid endorsing or opposing candidates or telling people how to vote. As Pope Benedict XVI stated in Deus Caritas Est, ‘The Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest. . . . The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible.’”

But, there is another reason. Voters have to assess not only a set of policy positions but the character of the candidates. The three prelates dismiss the distinction the Obama has drawn between being pro-choice and being pro-abortion. Given the history of the Democratic Party on the issue, their suspicion is understandable: could Obama merely be giving lip-service to abortion reduction? But, what to make of John McCain “straight talk” when he says that he believes life begins at conception and, in the very next breath, affirms his support for embryonic stem cell research? Which would be better for the pro-life cause: a sincere Obama who promotes abortion reduction or a cynical McCain who does only what is needed to manipulate pro-life voters? Maybe Obama is not sincere and maybe McCain was as confused as Nancy Pelosi when discussing embryonic stem cell research. It is up to voters to make such determinations, not prelates.

In the end, the stance of Chaput, Martino and Gracida harkens back to the days when the laity were expected to “pray, pay and obey.” But, we lay people will not be infantilized. I saw 100,000 people fill downtown Denver yesterday to cheer on Obama. Their archbishop should realize that his approach is ill-advised for another reason: It is not working.

Michael Sean Winters

Friday, October 24, 2008

Misunderstanding Chaput (UPDATE)

Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput is getting no love, to use the parlance of the day, from progressive Catholics. Doug Kmiec implies that Chaput is biased against Democrats, saying that he "singles out" their policies for criticism. Michael Sean Winters writes that Chaput is “the second most vocal supporter of the GOP.” Journalist David Gibson suspects that "the bottom of [Chaput's] argument is that a Catholic cannot vote for Obama." All three statements are mischaracterizations. And it reflects, I think, a larger misunderstanding that progressive Catholics have about their co-religionist opponents.

Chaput’s basic opposition is to political candidates who support Roe v. Wade. As he wrote in August,

Obviously, we have other important issues facing us this fall: the economy, the war in Iraq, immigration justice. But we can’t build a healthy society while ignoring the routine and very profitable legalized homicide that goes on every day against America’s unborn children. The right to life is foundational. Every other right depends on it. Efforts to reduce abortions, or to create alternatives to abortion, or to foster an environment where more women will choose to keep their unborn child, can have great merit—but not if they serve to cover over or distract from the brutality and fundamental injustice of abortion itself … Yet for thirty-five years I’ve watched prominent “pro-choice” Catholics justify themselves with the kind of moral and verbal gymnastics that should qualify as an Olympic event. All they’ve really done is capitulate to Roe v. Wade.

This position is not, strictly speaking, Republican or Democratic. It was also the late-career position of Robert P. Casey, Sr., the late Democratic governor of Pennsylvania. On the third day of the 1992 Democratic convention, Casey organized a full-page ad in The New York Times which called Roe “the most momentous act of exclusion in our history.” Casey also opposed the re-election of Mark Singel because Singel, in a reversal of his previous position, came out for Roe.

In addition, Chaput’s position echoes that found in the Catechism:

The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation:

… The moment a positive law deprives a category of human beings of the protection which civil legislation ought to accord them, the state is denying the equality of all before the law. When the state does not place its power at the service of the rights of each citizen, and in particular of the more vulnerable, the very foundations of a state based on law are undermined. . . . As a consequence of the respect and protection which must be ensured for the unborn child from the moment of conception, the law must provide appropriate penal sanctions for every deliberate violation of the child's rights."81

Now, our two parties have official positions about Roe. The Republican’s platform calls for the passage of a human life amendment, which if enacted would reverse Roe; the Democrats’ platform calls for preserving Roe. Naturally, the archbishop has made a descriptive statement about the GOP: that on cultural issues the GOP is “the natural ally” of the church.

It is true that Chaput has criticized pro-choice Democrats, such as Barack Obama. But that's because they favor abortion rights, not because they are Democrats.

Yet Chaput has made no prescriptive statements about the Republican Party; he has not endorsed, or even praised, one of their candidates for office. In fact, he said in an interview that “we are not with the Republican Party. They are with us.” That’s hardly the statement of a GOP booster.

If Chaput were a GOP supporter, he would say nice things about a Republican pro-life candidate instead of a pro-life Democratic one. Chaput said no such thing. For example, he didn’t imply support in 2006 for Bob Beauprez, the Republican opponent of Bill Ritter, the pro-life Democratic gubernatorial candidate (and now the state’s governor).

If Chaput were a GOP supporter, he would have said nice things about Rudy Giuliani, who was a leading Republican presidential candidate this year. Chaput said no such thing. Instead, he told Newsweek that Catholics would have to discuss their options:

"What if a candidate were right on all the issues except racial discrimination?" asked Denver's archbishop, the Most Rev. Charles Chaput. "Why isn't [abortion] as important as that?" If Giuliani is the nominee, Chaput says, Catholics will have to choose between the lesser of two evils or stay home from the polls in protest.

For what it is worth, I suspect that the archbishop is a Democrat. He invited me to give the annual Bob Casey lecture at the archdiocese. In talking with him, I learned that he is as much of a strong pro-life Democrat as Casey himself. As a young seminarian, he worked as an “active volunteer” for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968. He supported Jimmy Carter’s presidential bids in 1976. He opposed the Iraq war and some of the GOP’s attempts at cracking down on illegal immigration.

Chaput has offered encouragement to Catholics who oppose abortion but don’t seek to criminalize the procedure. But his position, as well as that of Casey, is that overturning Roe is foundational.

This makes sense to me. Consider the issue of slavery. In 1857, the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott declared that black Americans were the property of their masters. Was it really possible to oppose slavery but favor Dred Scott?

This is a question that I think that progressive pro-lifers need to ask.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that the pro-life committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement Tuesday that criticized the notion that seeking to reduce the abortion rate was a sufficient pro-life strategy.

Mark Stricherz

What d'ya mean "Land Line?"

One of the reasons that the polls have shown such big differences is their methodology. Some include cell phone-only voters but most don't. It makes a difference.

Michael Sean Winters

The Economy is a Moral Issue

The conventional wisdom about the 2008 election is nearly unanimous. John McCain closed the gap with Barack Obama when he emphasized cultural and moral issues, especially in his vice-presidential choice of Sarah Palin who put some lipstick on the often angry face of social conservatism. But, the Wall Street meltdown in late September moved moral issues aside. With the nation fixated on the economy, Obama opened up a large lead in the polls that seems destined to carry him to victory.

The conventional wisdom is not exactly accurate. (As is often the case, only Chris Matthews gets it right.) The economy did not displace moral issues: The economy is a moral issue. Providing for one’s family is a moral obligation, one that is suddenly uncertain. Buying a house and making the mortgage payments is a moral accomplishment, requiring discipline and delayed gratification. Faulty economic theories were part of the reason for the credit crunch, but greed has played its part. The anger felt on Main Street is not mere anti-elitism: The barons of high finance treated people’s hard-earned life savings as mere fodder for risk-taking. An economy that had been characterized by an idolatrous worship of the laws of the market suddenly sees the need for social solidarity in the form of government bailouts.

The economic crisis, in short, is more than an economic crisis. It is a cultural crisis, even a spiritual crisis. Years of easy credit and easy living had put a hefty materialistic id into most people’s identity. In the rush to acquire the latest technological gizmo from Ipods to Iphones, our culture defined success in terms of expensive stuff. The heroes of that culture had houses in the Hamptons, Mercedes-Benzes in the driveway, and lobbyists on K Street creating ever larger tax breaks for their companies. Magazines like Architectural Digest ceased to be about the aesthetics of architecture and instead became a kind of glossy consumer pornography, filled with photos of the latest, niftiest advances in creature comfort, none of it particularly beautiful.
Most importantly, an entire nation that had been led to believe that the good life could be charged ("Life takes Visa!" proclaimed the ad) suddenly had to ask itself what really mattered. The gods of Mammon have been pulled down from their pedestals. What will take their place?

Americans are not sure what they want, but they know they want a change and they have turned to the candidate who has made his name synonymous with change for 18 months of his long campaign. Obama has economic proposals at the ready, but it remains to be seen if he can help Americans answer this larger question: What matters? To him falls the task of re-negotiating the social contract, a task that is as enormous as it is infrequent. How will he inspire the country to take off in a new direction and what will that direction be? How can he lead the nation to meet not only its economic challenge, but the cultural and spiritual challenge posed by the economic downturn?

In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced similar socio-economic challenges and he responded with the New Deal, a phrase he unveiled in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. "What do the people of America want more than anything else?" FDR asked in that same speech. "To my mind, they want two things: work, with all the moral and spiritual values that go with it; and with work, a reasonable measure of security--security for themselves and for their wives and children. Work and security--these are more than words. They are more than facts. They are the spiritual values."

These more homely values are easily forgotten among the policy-making and policy-shaping classes. Candidates, their aides, their policy advisors and the media that cover them, all enjoy the kind of professional success that permits them not to worry about meeting the mortgage payments. But, Obama started to channel FDR last Saturday in St. Louis when he said, "It comes down to values – in America, do we simply value wealth, or do we value the work that creates it?" He should listen to Roosevelt’s fireside chats in the days and months ahead: Despite his patrician roots, FDR addressed the anxieties of all Americans with an almost unique mix of confidence and solidarity.

Abortion, gay marriage, immigration policy, our militaristic foreign policy and a host of other moral issues still matter to Americans. To some they are still decisive. But, for most Americans, their more primordial moral concern for home and hearth has come to the fore. Like FDR, Obama must find the political opportunity in the current crisis, and that opportunity is deeper than flipping Virginia and Ohio from red state to blue. It is time to re-draw the social contract to reflect values greater than acquisitiveness. It is time to create a tax structure and a regulatory scheme that rewards work other than the creation of "financial instruments" that bear a remarkable resemblance to a ponzi scheme. It is time to promote social solidarity through universal health insurance and better worker-retraining programs for those displaced by global competition. Obama must articulate this moral vision that animates his economic program, a moral vision that speaks to and for those in middle America who have been struggling for a long time.

Michael Sean Winters

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Politics of Abortion: Live from Philly

Tomorrow I will be doing a discussion of the politics of abortion in the 2008 election on WHYY's "Radio Times." The host is Marty Moss-Coane and we will be joined by Amy Sullivan from Time magazine. Be sure to tune in on the radio or online. It airs live from 10-11 AM.
Michael Sean Winters

CUA's Panel on the Catholic Vote

We had a panel discussion at Catholic University yesterday on the Catholic Vote in the 2008 election. You can see it on C-Span by clicking here.

The central question was this: Is there a “Catholic vote” anymore and, if so, what will drive it in the 2008 election cycle? The different panelists had their own opinions on this question, but the one point of consensus was that we don’t really know yet and won’t know until we get the exit polls on election night. There are a lot of shifting templates in the geography of this election, some of them tectonic like the historic tension between white, ethnic Catholics and African-Americans, and some of them ephemeral like how much Sarah Palin spent on her wardrobe.

One of the biggest questions is whether or not young people will turn out. There is convincing data to show that young Catholics, and indeed most young Americans, break disproportionately for Obama. Young evangelicals remain more firmly entrenched in the GOP column, but they are the exception not the rule. While pollsters and statisticians are understandably wary of high-end projections of youth turnout, which we have seen before but it has never quite panned out, I think this year will be different. Young people know that this year they can make history. Voting for Al Gore in 2000 would have set the country on a far different course from the one George W. Bush has taken us but no one at the time felt that voting for Gore was “taking part in history.” If Obama wins, all Americans (except the racists) will have to feel good about the fact that race was no impediment to his attaining the highest office in the land. Even if you think his policies will be a disaster for the country, breaking down racial and ethnic barriers is an undeniably good thing and an undeniably American thing.

There was a great deal of discussion about the abortion issue and how it will play. After the panel, a young woman came up to ask me if I knew that Barack Obama intended to increase the number of abortions in this country. She was bristling with hostility. I said during the panel that I think one of the reason Obama has to deliver on his pledge to find common ground on abortion is that so many of us are tired of the two sides shouting at each other, and part of his political persona is that he can be a bridge builder. And, if he wins, we pro-life Democrats must keep his feet to the fire on his pledge.

The emergence of Catholic Latinos as a critical voting bloc was also a focus of much attention. They are the fastest growing demographic in the entire electorate and they are already decisive in such key swing states as Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. If the next president delivers on humane immigration reform, he will earn the loyalty of the Latino vote for his party for a generation.

Catholics this year will lean blue like the rest of the country but they remain a distinctive voting bloc, with different cultural reference points, different historical family narratives &c. For too long Democrats ignored this distinctiveness, but Obama seems to get it. It may help him get to the White House and, even more, it may help him build a governing coalition once he gets there.

Michael Sean Winters

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Who speaks for the Church in the realm of politics?

The question has been the subject of some controversy in recent days. Bishop Martino in Scranton showed up at a politics forum that was discussing the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference document “Faithful Citizenship.” Instead of commending his flock for listening to, and discussing, the bishops’ instruction, he denounced the text: “The USCCB does not speak for me,” he thundered.

Of course, the question has a perennial quality to it. Whether or not you can put lipstick on a pig, you can’t just plunk the label “Catholic” on an organization and make it so. There is a group “Catholics for a Free Choice” that really does not seem to evidence any awareness of Catholic anthropology. Conversely, I watched EWTN the other night and was appalled at their “more Catholic than the Pope” attitude towards the faith as well as the amateurish understanding of politics evidenced by host Raymond Arroyo. In their thirst for nostalgia they seem to have ignored such basic and observable phenomena as the fact that Pope Benedict did not bar anyone from the communion rail during his visit to America last April.

Archbishop Chaput of Denver made sure the audience he addressed last Friday night understood that in his comments criticizing Barack Obama and his Catholic supporters, he was not speaking as an archbishop but as a “private citizen.” Of course, the Catholic women’s group who invited Chaput did not invite any other private citizens as their guest speaker. “Thou art a priest forever, by the order of Melchizadech” sings the psalmist, except, evidently, when you choose to speak as a private citizen. Clerics are entitled to their political opinions, of course, but it is smoke and mirrors to give a public speech “as a private citizen” when wearing a pectoral cross.

A voting guide put out by the group “Catholic Answer” not only claims it is speaking for the Church, but that there is only one answer to whatever conceivable questions you have. The voting guide issued by the liberal Catholic group “Catholics United” has a more balanced approach, analyzing the candidates’ positions on a variety of issues. But, neither organization has a canonical mission so while both can be consulted (and the “Catholics United” voter guide is well done), they do not carry any kind of ecclesiastical imprimatur. Communion and Liberation does have a canonical mission, and its voter guide is the best of the bunch: It is relentlessly abstract.

Relentless abstraction has its place. The same night the Bishop of Scranton was denouncing his confreres, I attended a presentation by Msgr. Stuart Swetland for the group Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS). He gave a fine and even-handed presentation of the Church’s teachings. In the Q-and-A, someone asked for whom he was going to vote and he declined to answer. “I think it is a mistake when a priest indicates who is going to vote for,” he said. “You all have to decide for yourselves how to apply the Church’s teachings to the concrete circumstances of the election.”

So, who speaks for the Church at election time? You do. We all do.

Michael Sean Winters

Election Prep in Washington

With the possible exception of Wasilla, no American city has gotten greater play in this election cycle than Washington DC. "Washington", as it is described by the candidates, represents all that is wrong with American government. It is an insult to be labeled a "Washington insider"; being associated with DC has become a scarlet letter.
After living most of my life in what most would consider the "heartland" (Pittsburgh, PA), I embarked to this town to study at the George Washington University about two months ago. Contrary to the popular portrayal of "Washington elites" in the media, what I found was a lot of people just like me. Most people on the street are very friendly, and though it's occasionally a hassle to have your walk home disrupted by the presidential motorcade or the ambassador of some country, the capital is in many ways just a normal, American city.
However, one of the unique factors of going to school in a the city of Washington is that there are very few people who are actually "from Washington" (though there are a fair number who hail from suburban enclaves in Maryland and Virginia). I have met people from across the country (and across the globe) who chose to attend school in Washington, and others who have gravitated to DC after college. The diversity leads to a lot of different perspectives on the presidential race, and also a lot of knowledge about Senate and Congressional races all across the country.
Though the District of Columbia's 3 electoral votes are hardly in play, the capital is an incredible place to be when preparing for an election. DC is across the Potomac from Virginia, and students from most of the DC universities (including both the College Democrats and College Republicans) have been canvassing Northern Virginia for over a month. On GW's campus, both organizations have had multiple speakers in preparation for the election. Hundreds of students have attended watch parties for the presidential debates. The weeks immediately before the election promise to be even more active, with phone-banking and last minute canvassing trips to North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
As the country gets ready to elect the new president, my classmates and I prepare to greet our new neighbor three blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Alex Pazuchanics, GWU

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Key Swing Voters: Young Catholics & Hispanic Evangelicals

The election is only two weeks away. You can expect the national polls to get a little tighter as we get closer to election day and undecided voters make their decision. Political theorists have different theories about how late deciding voters will break, but the truth is that most times, most people vote the way they did last time. This bodes well for McCain.

What doesn’t bode well for McCain is that the percentage of voters who are undecided or leaning his way is less than 50 percent. Put differently, nationally and in most of the key swing states, Obama has crossed the 50% threshold. So, even if his five-to-seven point lead dwindles to a three point lead, he still wins if the election ends up 51% to 48%.

Obama’s strength in the polls is the result of a couple of key swing constituencies turning blue this year. Two recent polls by the organization Faith in Public Life focused showed Obama winning the support of young Catholics and Hispanic evangelicals by decisive margins. Older Catholics (age 35 and up) divide evenly between McCain (46%) and Obama (44%) but Catholics aged 18-35 broke for Obama by a margin of 55% to 40%. In states with large concentrations of Catholic voters, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, this emerging generational divide could make the difference.

The second poll looked at the opinions of Hispanic evangelicals. This is a group that broke overwhelmingly for George W. Bush in 2004, 63 % to John Kerry’s 37%. This year, however, the poll showed Obama garnering 50% of the Hispanic evangelical vote to McCain’s 34%. Latino evangelicals are only a third of the total Hispanic vote, and they lag slightly behind their Catholic brethren in support for Obama. But, Bush won 44% of the total Latino vote in 2004 and McCain will be lucky to win a third. This swing among Hispanic voters is critical to Obama’s apparent lead in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.

The reasons for the switch among young Catholics are many and varied but the change in Latino evangelical voting is directly related to the GOP’s anti-immigrant posture. Not only do Latinos overwhelmingly support humane immigration reform, but 77% of Latino evangelicals link their views on immigration to their religious beliefs. In short, the GOP’s careful cultivation of the “party of religion” label is unconvincing to Latinos who have read in Leviticus that we are called to welcome the stranger. These voters remain suspicious of the Democrats: Obama has not addressed the immigration issue in the direct, values-laden way these voters see it. But, they know that McCain backtracked from his previous support for a path to citizenship for undocumented workers in his effort to win the GOP nomination. He threw them, and their families under the bus.

Immigration is a different kind of political issue from debates over the federal budget deficit or the environment. The impact is direct and immediate on a distinct portion of the electorate. If the Democrats embrace humane immigration reform, they will win the political loyalty of Latinos for a generation or more. That could put Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico in the Democratic camp for a long time and the GOP will have to find a different route to that magical number of 270 electoral votes.

Michael Sean Winters

Monday, October 20, 2008

The "Free" Market Did Not Fail

In recent weeks, a number of commentators – including several prominent Catholic writers – have announced the "death" of free-market capitalism. These reports are often tinged with a bit of "I told you so" smugness, and laced with the satisfaction that so often comes with the conviction that one was "right all along."

These reports are inaccurate, though – at least, we should hope that they are.

To be clear, the purist-libertarian fantasy of Ayn Rand novels and the early Rush albums is not what we have (thank goodness). Indeed, as the Washington Post editorializes today, the "market that failed" was not free: "We are not," the Post observed, "witnessing a crisis of the free market but a crisis of distorted markets." This is true, and it is true of many of the social and policy problems that are often chalked up to excessive economic freedom. The housing market and the credit environment – like, for example, the agricultural sector and so many others – are not unregulated, they are not arenas in which incentives operate, prices are set, and risks are taken without interference by government. Even in our "free" markets, regulation is ubiquitous.

As we move forward, and no matter who wins the election, let’s remember this fact: Reasonably-regulated-but-largely-free markets are tremendous forces for good and engines of creativity worth celebrating and protecting. The world needs more of them, not fewer. To be clear: to say this is not to deny the importance of government’s task, or to baptize selfishness, or to deny the overriding public obligation to the common good. It is merely to join the late Pope John Paul II in insisting that the great principles of the Catholic Social Thought tradition – including a "preferential option" for the poor, and "solidarity" among all persons – are likely to be best realized through the responsible exercise of human freedom – including economic freedom – and not through centralized command-and-control schemes.
Rick Garnett

Powell's Endorsement Doesn't Matter

Newscasters were swooning over the news that Colin Powell was endorsing Barack Obama. Powell served George Bush #41 as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Bush #43 as Secretary of State, so the endorsement was certainly newsworthy. But, it doesn’t make much of a difference at this point.

For all the focus on endorsements, the limited power of surrogacy has been shown again and again in this campaign. When Ted Kennedy endorsed Barack Obama in January, experts predicted Kennedy would be able to deliver the Latino vote in California on Super Tuesday. Hillary Clinton not only won the Latinos in California, she won Kennedy’s home state of Massachusetts as well. Hillary Clinton had the early support of such prominent black congressional leaders as John Lewis and Stephanie Tubbs Jones, but they couldn’t deliver the black vote.

There was a time when the endorsement of a labor union really mattered and at the local level, the financial and organizational strength of unions is still important, especially in Democratic primaries. But, the union vote supported Ronald Reagan in 1980, Reagan busted the Air Traffic Controllers Union the next year, and yet he still won the support of most union households in 1984. Many blue collar workers today are ambivalent about supporting Obama.

Catholic bishops fare no better. For the past four years, no bishop has been more vocal in his opposition to the Democratic Party than Archbishop Raymond Burke, who served in St. Louis from 2004 until this past June when he was appointed to a desk job in Rome. This past weekend, St. Louis produced the largest crowd of the campaign so far, when 100,000 people turned out to cheer on Barack Obama. This beat the record of 84,000 set in Denver, home to the nation’s second most vocal supporter of the GOP, Archbishop Charles Chaput. Ever since Scranton’s Bishop Joseph Martino announced Joe Biden was barred from receiving communion in his diocese, Pennsylvania has been turning bluer and bluer.

There is one group of surrogates who really matter: average people. At this point in a campaign, an undecided voter is more likely to be moved by the enthusiasm of a neighbor or relative than by anything said on “Meet the Press” by Colin Powell or in the Denver Catholic Register by Archbishop Chaput. Which leads us to the really big news of the weekend: Not only did Obama raise more money in one month than any candidate in history, his campaign has received donations from more than three million people. And, you can bet that someone who has opened his or her wallet is not going to be shy about telling friends and relatives how they are voting and why.

Winning Powell’s endorsement gave Obama a good news cycle, putting McCain on the defensive. Powell’s message was also remarkably on point, calling Obama “transformational” and calling out McCain for his selection of the underwhelming Gov. Sarah Palin as a running mate. But, it is the local hairdresser who sent in $10. to the Obama campaign and has a half hour with each of her clients the next two weeks whose endorsement will really help Obama turn out his vote and sway the remaining undecided voters.

Michael Sean Winters

Sunday, October 19, 2008

We Have Another Winner!

The winner of the Blog Contest in the High School Division is Bobby Hausen os Regis High School. His post appears below. Runner-up for the High School Division was Daniel Morris, also of Regis. Both will receive free online subscriptions to America for one year. Congratulations Bobby and Daniel!

This Election Really Matters!

As the 2008 election rapidly approaches, the economy continues to be the most important issue for voters. After several big wall street firms went under and the largest drop in stock prices since the Depression, other issues such a abortion, healthcare, and foreign aid have faded into the recesses of everyone's minds. America wants a leader who will be able to turn this economic crisis around and bring back the booming economy we had five years ago.
Neither candidate proposes a flawless plan to correct the economy. Both plans take actions that would encourage the selling of stocks, causing the market prices to plummet even further. Clearly this would not be a desirable approach to the situation seeing as "the selling" is the reason behind the recent depreciation. But just as investors sell out of fear and desperation, they also will buy overpriced stocks in fear that they are missing out on the bottomed out economy, as we saw on Columbus Day, causing the market to climb almost as quickly as it was falling in prior days. The future president should have a plan that capitalizes on this human element of the stock market and encourages buyers to invest.
November 4th also proves to be the most important election day in the past several decades because the next president will control the most powerful federal government to date. After the recent events including the 700 billion dollar bailout, America looks more and more like a socialist republic. Our Founding Fathers warned against the government holding too much power and specifically set up the government to ensure that the people of the United States served as a system of checks and balances to the federal government. Now the next president will inherit a government with much more power than ever before, and we must hope that he will use that power responsibly.
Bobby Hausen, Regis High School