Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Obama's Policies Would Not Reduce Abortion

Sidney Callahan’s recent post both proposes and endorses an increasingly common claim which goes something like: "Yes, Sen. Obama’s views on abortion – inparticular, his support for the Court’s Roe v. Wade decision – are misguided. However, ‘his policies and programs more comprehensively follow Catholic socialteaching than McCain's -- and they even result in fewer abortions.’"
Now, I know a fair bit about the matter, and do not believe that, in fact, Sen.Obama’s "policies and programs more comprehensively follow Catholic social teaching than McCain's." Sen. Obama, for example, strongly opposes any use ofpublic funds to help low-income children attending Catholic schools, but theChurch’s social teaching points clearly in the other direction.

In addition,Republicans, at present, better appreciate the demands of religious liberty,and the connection between so-called "social issues" and the common good, than do Democrats. But, in any event, let’s say (as we should) that with both candidates, from the perspective of the Church’s social-teaching tradition, it is clearly a mixed bag. What is not true, though – even if pro-life Democrats sincerely want it to be true – is that the policies that will pursued by anObama administration (and a Pelosi / Reid Congress) will "result in fewer abortions."

The "Obama will reduce abortions"claim rests on the assumption that increases in various social-welfare programs will reduce what the Democratic Party’s platform calls the "need" for abortions. Let’s assume this is true. In order to have any confidence, though, that an Obama administration’s policies would reduce abortions, it is essential to consider – a Catholic aspiring to faithful citizenship should consider – the facts that, for example, (a) in an Obama administration, public funding for abortion would increase, both here and abroad; (b) President Obama supports, as does the Democratic Party’s congressional leadership, the Freedom of Choice Act, which will un-do a wide range of regulations (e.g., informed-consent laws, the Hyde Amendment) that clearly do reduce the number of abortions; (c) PresidentObama has said that he opposes federal funding for crisis pregnancy centers,whose work helps encourage pregnant women to reject abortion; (d) PresidentObama would use the bully pulpit of the presidency to proclaim and defend the view that the abortion license is a fundamental constitutional right; (e)President Obama would appoint federal judges who would vote to invalidate even reasonable regulations of abortion, and (f) President Obama supports massive increases in federal funding for research that involves the creation and destruction of human embryos. I do not believe that the abortion issue is just about the numbers; it reallymatters, wholly and apart from abortion rates, that our fundamental law not endorse the view that unborn children ought not to be protected in law.

That said, when it comes to abortion, the numbers-argument does not support the election of Sen. Obama. It has been estimated, for example, that the passage of the Freedom of Choice Act would itself result in 125,000 more abortions each year. Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life, has observed: [B]y even the most conservative estimate, there are more than one million Americans alive today because of the Hyde Amendment, which cut off federal funding for abortion starting in 1976. Some of them are probably turning out for the Obama "Faith, Family, Values Tour" meetings. Even the Alan Guttmacher Institute (linked to Planned Parenthood) and NARAL admit that the Hyde Amendment (and the similar policies adopted by many states) have resulted in many, many babies being born who otherwise would have been aborted -- indeed,the pro-abortion groups periodically put out papers complaining about this. So, the Hyde Amendment is a proven "abortion reduction" policy, big time. Yet Obama advocates repeal of the Hyde Amendment -- and he also wants to enact a national health insurance program that would also mandate coverage of abortion on demand.(As a state legislator, he voted directly against limits on public funding of elective abortions.) If he were elected president and succeeded in implementing these policies, the likely result would be a very substantial increase in the number of abortions performed in the U.S., quite possibly an increase in the hundreds of thousands annually.

To be sure, there is plenty of room for reasonable, facts-based disagreement ona wide range of policy and political questions among faithful Catholics. Many faithful Catholics will, perhaps with mixed feelings, vote for Sen. Obama notwithstanding the fact that his election will set back the pro-life cause when it comes to abortion and embryo-destroying research. To be sure, our current abortion-regulation regime and practices – while gravely wrong – is not the only matter of concern for those aspiring to faithful citizenship. But, that regime and those practices do matter. And, with the election of Sen.Obama, they will get worse.

Rick Garnett

Two Cheers For Partisanship

Bipartisanship has become a mantra in Washington as the nation faces an unprecedented economic crisis. And, after 20 years of slash-and-burn partisanship, there is something to be said for bipartisanship. But, yesterday the blame for Congress’s failure to structure a bailout rests partly with this concern for bipartisanship.

The President put forward a plan that would have given the Treasury Secretary unlimited control over $700 billion. The original bill actually included the provision that the Secretary’s decisions could not be challenged in the courts or by Congress. Needless to say, amidst the many novel interpretations of the Constitution put forward by the Bush Administration, this was the most outrageous. But, in the spirit of bipartisanship, the Democratic leadership of the Congress worked for a week with the administration to improve their proposal.

Last Thursday, after John McCain flew back to Washington to take part in the negotiations, the negotiations broke down as House Republicans announced their refusal to back the Bush plan. To be clear: The objections raised by the House GOP did not have to do with the Democratic amendments to the Bush plan but to the plan itself. A group of very conservative House members have lost confidence in Bush and Treasury Secretary Paulson for abandoning what the conservatives believe are crucial GOP commitments to less government spending and less regulation of the free market. They would not sign on to the deal.

Another round of negotiations over the weekend brought everyone back to the same page. That same page was a muddled mess of a compromise that even its backers could scarcely explain to the American people. A group of far left Democrats and far right Republicans refused to back the measure and they defeated it.

The opposition to the bailout may lack a plan but they don’t lack for clarity. On the right, they don’t think there needs to be a plan. They support the free market and see the crisis as the result of too much regulation and government intervention in the market. Most cite Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s role in the sub-prime mortgage market. Others are more sweeping in their indictment, such as Texas Rep. Ron Paul. No longer a presidential candidate but still a libertarian wingnut, he was blaming the Federal Reserve System, not the actions of the Fed, but the fact of the Fed. You would have thought that a congressman whose district was just leveled by a hurricane would see the benefit of government intervention.

The Democrats who failed to back the plan were from the more lefty wing of the party. They objected to what they perceived as bailing out Wall Street executives whom they think should be put into early retirement, and with no golden parachute to ease the fall. This group was, in its way, even less principled than the GOP opponents if the bailout: Whatever else it did or did not do, the bailout was a slap in the face to the idea that capitalism and competition are always the best way to organize society, and that is a lesson the nation needs to learn.

So, going forward, the House Democrats should ignore the Republicans for a day or two and craft their own proposal, one that has the support of every Democratic member of the House. Keep communication with the administration open, but craft a specifically Democratic plan. Then let the GOP vote against it and the President veto it. The Senate, which is so evenly split, is dicier – Democrats there would need to make sure they have at least one or two Republicans on board. If the final Democratic measure is vetoed, at least the American people will know where the blame lies for the meltdown.

Sometimes ideological clarity will help to make future bipartisanship easier. Legislators will vote for a compromise, but they should not be expected to vote for the legislative equivalent of hash. Democrats want government intervention in the market to restore fairness as well as liquidity. Republicans want the free market to play out. Let’s give that choice to the American people on November 4.

Michael Sean Winters

Monday, September 29, 2008

Winters and Malone on The Debates

Our intrepid blogger Michael Sean Winters teams up again with associate editor Matt Malone, S.J., to analyze the first presidential debate. Listen to their discussion here.

And you can subscribe to our podcast here.

Tim Reidy

Pro-Life Catholic for Obama

Why am I as a 'mass going' staunchly pro life Catholic, voting for Obama? Of course I disagree with his views on Roe vs Wade, but I think that his policies and programs more comprehensively follow Catholic social teaching than McCain's--and they even result in fewer abortions.

There's a lot of evidence that providing aid and support for women, children and the poor, lowers the number of abortions. Pro lifers can choose to see present results rather than repeating exhortations for the future.

After all, to roll back and change laws in a democracy, the legislators, the courts and the majority of voters have to be convinced, and this process of moral reorientation on abortion can be a slow process. Think of the arguments you have with your friends and family.

In the interim, when immediate overthrow of a flawed law is impossible it is morally permissible, as John Paul II expresses it, to recognize "the art of the possible" and try to "limit the harm done by such a law."

Moreover, Catholic pro life advocates for Obama desperately want to limit the grave moral evils and dangers to life arising from pursuing preemptive wars, defending the use of torture, continuing the death penalty, and flouting of Constitutional and international law. As billions are spent on the destructive Iraq war, the needs of the poor, the ill and the schools are neglected, and the whole economic system falters.

Our Bishops have instructed us in the 2008 document "Faithful Citizenship," to inform our consciences and choose prudently. We must seek the common good as well as avoid evils. Bishops carry out their role of teaching and transmitting the tradition when they state Catholic social teaching in its fullness and nuance as they have here. And yes, if others in public life misrepresent Catholic doctrine, it is the Bishops' right and duty to correct them.

Moreover, in this document the Bishops firmly assert that they seek to inform consciences and "do not intend to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote." Yet certain Bishops (we know who they are) appear to be doing their best to coerce the conscientious decisions of their people by punitive uses of sacramental power. To deny Catholics the Eucharist because they have voted in a certain way seems to grievously overstep clerical authority as well as distort Catholic teaching on religious liberty.

While I think Obama is far and away the candidate most completely in agreement with Catholic teaching on peace and justice, I would never want to have McCain's Catholic followers be denied communion because of their votes on preemptive war or embryonic stem cell research.

In fact such non pastoral exercises of clerical power involving worship give scandal. This is imitating Jesus? Christ the Lord showed unfailing charity to all, even his enemies. He welcomes all who seek him.

Jesus teaches, heals, inspires and proclaims in one of my favorite scriptural verses, "Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut."(Rev. 3:8)

Sidney Callahan

The Pulpit & the IRS

In 1936, near the end of the election campaign, a Roman Catholic priest gave a nationwide radio address endorsing Franklin Delano Roosevelt for re-election. "In this critical hour, I urge you to use every effort at your command among your relatives, friends and acquaintances in support of Franklin D. Roosevelt," concluded Msgr. John A. Ryan. The broadcast was paid for by the Democratic National Committee and much of the talk was in response to another Catholic priest, Father Charles Coughlin, who had been denouncing FDR.

In 1954, Congress passed a law forbidding pastors to endorse candidates from the pulpit or risk losing their tax exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service. So, for legal reasons, we haven’t had Catholic priests giving endorsements in churches, although nothing in the law bans them from making endorsements in their capacity as citizens outside the confines of their church. Additionally, in 1980, Democratic Congressman Father Robert Drinan was forced to resign his seat in Congress under pressure from Pope John Paul II who did not want priests in politics, unless it was Poland of course.

This past weekend, a group of conservative, mostly evangelical, pastors decided to challenge the law banning endorsements. They gave sermons that explicitly endorsed a candidate for president. As far as the news reports indicate, the only candidate endorsed was John McCain, mostly citing his stance in opposition to both abortion and gay marriage, issues "that transcend all others" according to Rev. Ron Johnson, Jr., a pastor in Indiana who joined the protest. Rev. Johnson went on to say "The issue is not ‘Are we legislating morality?’ This issue is ‘Whose morality are we legislating?’"

Rev. Johnson is right on the second point: All legislation is in some sense a legislation of morality. The civil rights movement forced an all-white Southern morality that forbid racial integration to accept racial integration. The opposition that Pope John Paul II voiced against the Iraq War was based on moral principles, as was President Bush’s decision to pursue the war anyway. When the Supreme Court ruled that abortion was about "privacy" they begged the question that was at issue. So, yes, morality defines what we mean by justice and justice is the objective of law.
But, the good reverends should have thought twice about their protest on other grounds. For starters, these evangelical churches are the ones that distribute the bracelets that carry the simplistic slogan, "What Would Jesus Do?" or just the initials "WWJD?" As to the issue at hand, we know pretty well what Jesus did and did not do, and He did not get overly involved in politics. And, as the Catholic bishops argued in their document "Faithful Citizenship" (link at left), while some issues are more important than others, and a well informed conscience will rank the issues accordingly, abortion and gay marriage are not issues that trump all others, even though they are very important. Politics is a complicated business and reducing it to one or two issues is wrong. Similarly, and especially given the changes in the Democratic platform, an argument can be made that their policy directives will do more to reduce the abortion rate than the GOP call to overturn Roe v. Wade. You can agree with the argument or not, but you have to have an argument of your own.

Archbishop Favalora of Miami seemed to strike the right note about how churchmen should be involved in politics when he announced that none of his priests would be joining the protest. He cited several reasons, including all the good the Church accomplishes with the money they save from their tax-exempt status. "For another, ‘scriptural truth’ is not that easy to attain. Which is more ‘true’ in terms of scripture: The Old Testament passage that says ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ or Jesus’ admonition to ‘turn the other cheek’? The problem is that people often quote selectively from Scripture in order to back their own opinions. The other problem is that rarely, if ever, does an individual candidate or political party embody the gamut of ‘scriptural truth.’"

The day after the election, we will have a new President, not a new Messiah. The reason to keep religion out of partisanship is because faith will get sullied if it descends into those depths. The First Amendment protects religion from the State as much as the other way round.

Michael Sean Winters

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Debate #1: The Verdicts

Multiple verdicts emerged from last night’s first presidential debate, depending on what question or questions a given voter had. Overall, the cumulative answers to those questions probably made the debate a draw which is a political win for Obama.

The most important question for Obama to answer was: Is this new guy ready to be president? Verdict: Yes. Obama looked presidential, his answers displayed a wealth of knowledge on a variety of subjects and, more importantly, an ability to weigh the relative importance of discrete pieces of information and craft an overall narrative that voters could understand. His critique of McCain’s stance on Iraq was not only sharp, but showed how the obsession with Iraq had taken our eye off the ball in Afghanistan and other parts of the world.

The most important question for McCain to answer was: Does this guy understand what’s going on with the economy or is he out of touch? Verdict: Still deliberating. McCain conveyed that he was holding his nose on the Wall Street bailout much more effectively than Obama. On the other hand, I am sure that focus groups of unaffiliated voters love McCain’s attack on congressional earmarks, but as Obama pointed out, even if all earmarks were eliminated, the government would save $18 billion. That is a lot of money, but it is dwarfed by the $700 billion the government is committing to the Wall Street Rescue. McCain also has to drop the line “You will know their names” when discussing earmarks. Whose names? Clearly, this was once part of his stump speech but it has become garbled in translation.

The most important question for Jim Lehrer was: How to referee without intruding. Verdict: Flunked. In his effort to get the candidates to speak directly with one another, he sounded like a fifth grade teacher settling a playground fight and made himself, not the candidates, the center of attention. If he had wanted the two to speak directly to each other, that should have been made clear beforehand. If they still insisted on facing him or the audience or the cameras, that is their choice, not his.

What does last night’s debate tell us about their performances in the upcoming debates? Verdict: Everything. Both men had plenty of opportunity to address what all commentators agreed were their core problems. For Obama, he is too cool by half, nothing makes him flustered, voters who want to know he will fight for them see a man who will not fight for anything. For McCain, he needs to show the same passion for pocketbook issues that he does for foreign policy. Neither candidate achieved this. Obama was in command of the issues and of himself but his heart was never on his sleeve. McCain was halting, not particularly coherent when discussing the economy, but became sharper and more engaged when discussing the former Soviet republic of Georgia. He also looked ridiculous delivering applause lines from his stump speech when the audience was not allowed to applaud.

So, while the early polling shows the night a win for Obama, I suspect that candidates who were leaning one way or another found plenty to confirm their lean. There was no single mistake by either that could become a soundbite on Youtube, played over and over again. Obama was Obama. McCain was McCain.

In the grand scheme of the campaign, however, a draw is a big win for Obama. Not only was last night McCain’s last real chance to showcase his foreign policy strong suit, he needed a game changer and he did not get it. Obama, like Ronald Reagan in 1980, just needed to show up and look presidential. That may not sway as many undecided voters his way as it did for Reagan because of lingering racism but I am guessing that it will swing enough of them in the key swing states.

Michael Sean Winters

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Bailout & The Blame

In some quarters – including, I think, in several of the posts on this blog – a particular narrative about the current crisis seems to have taken hold. It goes something like this: "The current woes – which most of us really couldn’t describe, let alone explain – are the result of deregulatory policies and free-market ideology. What we are now seeing is the fruits of selfish (i.e., Republican) action and venal inattention. The blame for the bailout, and for the costs it will impose on regular people, is fairly placed on President Bush, free markets, deregulation, the Republican Congress, and (strangest of all) John McCain."

This narrative is politically useful, no doubt. But because this blog is not merely an outlet for partisan point-scoring, but is instead intended to be, in a meaningful sense, educational, it seems necessary to point out the fact that this narrative corresponds imperfectly to reality.
Fannie and Freddie, and their woes, are not the results of free-market ideology or excessive de-regulation; rather, their very existence (as GSE’s) is in tension with that ideology. They and their practices (and failures) are not the product of "conservative" legislators, but of "liberal" ones, who sought to find ways to provide housing to low-income people *precisely* by end-running market incentives and pressures. For more than a decade, it has been conservatives and Republicans – like John McCain – who have been calling for closer supervision of Fannie and Freddie’s practices; and Democrats who have resisted such calls. (The recipients of Fannie’s and Freddie’s campaign contributions are, overwhelmingly, powerful Democrats, including Sen. Obama.)

If anyone has been proved horribly wrong in this crisis, it is Rep. Barney Frank and Sen. Charles Schumer, not John McCain; if anyone has been vindicated, it is certainly not Sen. Obama (or European-style business regulations). Look again: The Democrats have ignored calls for regulation and oversight, while receiving hefty campaign contributions. They have controlled the Congress for the last two years. And yet it’s the Republicans’ fault that Fannie and Freddie are now at the heart of the credit crisis?

I share the view, of course, of Michael Sean Winters that Catholic Social Teaching does and must speak to this and similar crises. Of course there is a moral dimension to all this. The Catholic Social Tradition, however, is not merely a set of populist talking points. To say that the economic order exists in order to contribute to the authentic flourishing of the human person is not (by a long shot) to answer any particular question about how what laws and policies should be regarding sub-prime mortgages and mortgages for low-income would-be borrowers. It is quite mistaken, then, to diagnose the current crisis as involving merely the attempted exploitation by the rich capitalists of the (to quote Michael) "grandmother who had earned her retirement or a married couple trying to put money away for their child’s college education." At least as much a part of the story – if only the pro-Obama press would tell it – is the fact that deciding, in boom times, to get Fannie and Freddie in the business of making risky loans (and, in many cases, strong-arming banks to provide risky loans), is, well, risky.

Rick Garnett

The Dark Knight and the Bailout

In the summer’s box office smash “The Dark Knight,” the Joker, played by Heath Ledger, does not run around Gotham spreading evil per se. He spreads chaos. And then watches good people choose evil in the midst of the chaos. Yesterday, for a variety of reasons, the discussion of what government should do in response to the economic meltdown on Wall Street turned into chaos. It is not a good sign.

Part of the problem was the histrionic role John McCain crafted for himself. There appeared to be no good reason for the White House meeting between congressional leaders, the President and the two candidates. And, most times, a meeting without an achievable agenda turns into a nightmare. So far from rising above politics by “suspending” his campaign, McCain brought presidential politics into the delicate negotiations.

Why are the negotiations delicate? Because what is required in this situation is a bit of courage. Congressional offices were flooded with calls opposing the bailout. Most people would like to see Wall Street financiers get their comeuppance. But, if Wall Street fails, Americans who rely on credit – small businesses with seasonal fluctuations, farmers, banks – all will find their access to credit restricted making it more difficult to conduct business, creating conditions for more economic decline. So, Congress must do what is right not what is popular, that is, they must act with political courage. Alas, if one is looking for cowardice in the halls of power, the environment is target rich, but the instances of courage are few and far between,

House Republican members staged a revolt of sorts yesterday, refusing to sign onto to the President’s plan, even as it has been modified by negotiations all week. They promoted an alternative that, among other things, called for more deregulation. This is crazy talk. The lack of regulation got us into this mess. (Democrats should be ashamed for signing on to deregulation of the financial markets in 1999!) The idea that somehow the invisible hand of the market will solve the mess that the invisible hand created is absurd.

Why did the GOP members rally to an ideologically pure, laissez-faire alternative? Because they can. While the bailout may have a huge impact on the presidential race, it won’t on most House races. 98 percent of House members routinely win re-election. Re-districting has allowed politicians to draw the boundaries of their districts in ways that virtually ensure their re-election with computer-generated voting analyses. The greatest threat to re-election is not from the opposing party but from a primary challenger who plays more effectively to the party’s base. In primary elections, fewer people vote, so appealing to the more extreme elements of the base helps. Isolated from any electoral accountability, House members of both parties stay clear of moderation.

So, the economic crisis on Wall Street is coupled with a systemic political problem and the nation waits for the government to act. The president is hobbled both by his abysmal approval ratings and his previous record of using fear to whip up support only to have the object of his fears prove less than compelling over time. The Democrats have to fess up that they have done little in the one and one-half years they have been in charge of Congress to create the regulations that would have prevented these kinds of problems. And almost everybody is not likely to have a real electoral challenge in November so they have no real accountability to the electorate. That is not a recipe for a bold program to re-order the nation’s financial structure.

McCain and Obama have until 9 p.m. tonight to decide where they stand on the bailout. If they come down on opposite sides of this issue, then the chaos will deepen. If they come down on the same side, they can give cover for their congressional allies to do the right thing. If you like high drama, this is it. Unlike “The Dark Knight” however, this is not fiction. The Joker wrote, "Why So Serious?" after perpetrating his crimes. In Washington, today is a time for everyone to be serious.

Michael Sean Winters

Thursday, September 25, 2008

McCain's Stunt, John Paul's Principles & Obama's Opportunity

Who knew that John McCain was his own stuntman? What else to call his decision to “suspend” his campaign and fly back to Washington to help solve the economic crisis. Was McCain earnest about the importance of being back in the Senate or was he merely confused about the word order of the Oscar Wilde play?

McCain has admitted to no special expertise in complex economic matters, despite chairing the Commerce Committee of the Senate for many years. Nor do complex legislative negotiations necessarily benefit from having “mavericks” involved. Nor did any of the lead congressional or administration negotiators – not Treasury Secretary Paulson nor Congressman Barney Frank nor Senator Dodd – call for McCain’s help. The negotiations, by all reports, were proceeding well when John McCain decided he was needed. Rep. Frank, the funniest as well as one of the smartest members of Congress, was having none of it: “We’re trying to rescue the economy, not the McCain campaign.”

If McCain’s polls numbers had been on the upswing, his move might have been seen as disinterested. Instead, it looks like a ploy, a gimmick, a stunt. You have to be careful with such stunts. Yesterday afternoon, it looked like the McCain camp had beaten Obama to a bipartisan punch, that he had outwitted his opponent, and changed what had been a bad storyline. But, precisely because his move was seen as political in nature, it is doubtful that he will gain much from his intervention except the wrath of some in the GOP base who have rebelled against the President’s proposals. Complex economic realities will not be solved by the heroic intervention of anyone, least of all when there is not much heroism in the act. McCain did not look presidential yesterday. He looked frantic to change his poll numbers. Stunts will not change anything.

Principles, on the other hand, are especially important in a time of crisis. Part of the economic crisis is complicated and financial. Part of it is moral. In 1981, Pope John Paul II issued his first (and favorite) encyclical on social justice, Laborem Exercens. (Link is at left with other historic Church documents) “[T]he error of early capitalism can be repeated wherever man is in a way treated on the same level as the whole complex of the material means of production, as an instrument and not in accordance with the true dignity of his work-that is to say, where he is not treated as subject and maker, and for this very reason as the true purpose of the whole process of production.”(Chapter 7) The Pope’s highly philosophic words are not the stuff of a 30-second campaign spot, but Barack Obama would do well to consult, and repeat, the distinction that Pope John Paul II made in homier words: the human person is not a means, or a thing, or a worker-bee, or a cog in someone else’s economic wheel.

Part of the horror of the current crisis is that some Wall Street companies clearly did not give a hoot about the average investor or the average homeowner. The average person who invested with Lehman Brothers could not be expected to know how to value these “financial instruments” that bundled bad mortgages and sold them at inflated costs to unsuspecting buyers. Indeed, one of the most difficult problems still on the negotiators’ table is the question of how to assess the value of these mortgage-backed securities. But, the captains of high finance did not care. They did not care if the homeowner was offered a loan they could not afford. They did not care if the bundling of these mortgages on the belief that housing prices would go up forever bore a frightening resemblance to a ponzi scheme. They saw the chance for a quick profit, and they took it. The average investor was a means to their end.

Obama does not need to embrace Catholic social teaching about the economy, but he needs to speak to the moral aspect of the economic crisis. The crisis is rooted in the fact that Wall Street forgot that the money at issue was not just a dollar figure on a balance sheet but the life savings of a human person, a grandmother who had earned her retirement or a married couple trying to put money away for their child’s college education.

In the 1930s, Msgr. John A. Ryan denounced the “economic dictatorship” that controlled Wall Street. His attacks were echoed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt who spoke forcefully against “economic tyranny” and argued that “the collapse of 1929 showed up the despotism for what it was. The election of 1932 was the people’s mandate to end it.” In doing his debate prep, Obama would do well to consult the words of FDR who so effectively channeled both progressive and Catholic beliefs about social justice. FDR discovered his "rendezvous with destiny" by speaking in moral terms about economic difficulties and Obama's destiny lay along the same path.

Michael Sean Winters

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Where's George Bush?

I remember a conversation I had with a Washington sage in December of 2000, shortly after the Supreme Court stopped the counting of votes in Florida, awarding the presidency to George W. Bush. “The country will be fine. It will be like the 1840s and 1850s,” my friend said. “No one remembers the presidents from those decades but we all remember Clay, Calhoun and Webster. Congress will be the center of government.” In the event, 9/11 changed all that. George W. Bush used signing statements, invocations of his authority as commander-in-chief, bizarre theories of executive power, and his personal and political prowess with the GOP leadership in the Congress to become the most powerful president in history.

But, where was he this week? He appeared in the Rose Garden last Friday with Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. He issued a statement on Monday. But, mostly, he has left the talking to Paulson and others.

Bush, you may recall, cited his MBA (the first presidential candidate to have one) as one of his principle credentials when he ran for president in 2000. And, he had “run” a business, if by “running” you mean getting a sweetheart political deal to manage a baseball team in one of the fastest growing markets in the country. Why did this economically savvy president not take to the airwaves to calm the nation, explain the economic crisis, and outline the government’s plan for action? Instead, we were made to feel that the W. in his name stood for Waldo, as in “Where’s Waldo?”

I will admit that the issues involved in the Wall Street meltdown are complicated. But, not that complicated. I never took an economics class in my life, but just from reading the papers it is clear that Wall Street engaged in risky behavior – the kind of behavior that Republicans were championing just two weeks ago – and had built a ponzi scheme of so-called “financial instruments” upon the home mortgage market. Greed doing what greed does, namely infecting everything it touches and expanding its reach wherever it can, went from being the engine of honest capitalism to the much-denounced cause of the crisis. How can the heart of the economic system be the cause of the problem?

Less clear is what should be done about it. Why not let investors hang out to dry? What would happen on Main Street if the stock market crashed? Many Americans have their 401k plans in stocks and would hate to see those depleted, but is it that much better to see their taxes go up paying for a bailout that would benefit the barons of Wall Street who created this mess as much or more than it would protect the average investor’s 401k?

Yesterday, Vice-President Dick Cheney went to Capitol Hill to drum up support for the administration’s bailout plan. His meeting with Republican congressional leaders did not go well. South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, a staunch Republican, gave voice to a widely held sentiment when he said that “Americans can no longer trust the economic information they are getting from this administration.” Another GOP lawmaker said that Cheney was the wrong guy to send to Capitol Hill: “The problem is that they’ve used up a lot of goodwill.” Nothing happens in a vacuum: The bullying of Congress for much of the past eight years has come back to haunt the White House exactly when it needs support.

Sic transit gloria mundi. These words were chanted by a Franciscan friar in front of a newly elected Pope just before his coronation as the friar burned flax, a plant that is quickly and thoroughly consumed by fire. The hubris of George W. Bush for the past eight years has resulted in his inability to show his face when the country needs its president. Like all who hold that high office, Mr. Bush must worry about his place in history. The thought should be haunting him at night as the nation looks to the Senate for leadership.

Michael Sean Winters

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Visible Hand in Capitalism

It’s not every day that I get to agree with conservative writer Bill Kristol, so I grab the chance when it comes. In his column at the New York Times yesterday, Kristol seconded the proposal of an un-named friend that the bailout proposal before Congress include this provision: “Any institution selling securities under this legislation to the Treasury Department shall not be allowed to compensate any officer or employee with a higher salary next year than that paid the president of the United States.” Bravo.

If you doubted Kristol was repeating a GOP heresy, ask why his interlocutor wished to remain anonymous?

Kristol believes that this provision would prevent companies that did not really need help from applying for it. I suspect that determination will be made by investors in the weeks ahead. Any company that does not dump its bad, bundled “financial instruments” by selling them to the Treasury will be eaten alive in the market.

The bundling of home mortgages into securities on the belief that housing prices would only go up turned Wall Street brokers into corrupt agents of a complicated ponzi scheme: So long as everyone kept buying, all would be well, but once the buying stopped, the whole game would be exposed and the house of cards, in this case a house of credit cards, would come tumbling down. There is no reason, repeat no reason, to respect or reward these barons of high finance who sold their souls and are now reaping the whirlwind. They either knew what they were doing or, as the law states it, they should have known. There was something pathetic about Treasury Secretary Paulson’s concern for these fast-falling oligarchs. If they have to forfeit their multi-million dollar mortgages on their vacation homes in the Hamptons, at least it is only a vacation home. Many average Americans lost their only homes this year, and those homes were not in Amagansett.

Democrats in Congress are pushing for a less punitive restriction than Kristol’s. They are also insisting that mortgage companies be forced to negotiate lower rates for average homeowners who risk losing their homes. And, in this morning’s Washington Post, E.J. Dionne highlights a proposal by Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island to give taxpayers stock in the companies that participate in the bailout: if the taxpayer is taking the risk, she should get the reward. If the GOP plan can properly be called “socialism for the rich” the Reed proposal is “capitalism for the taxpayer.” Through the looking glass Alice!

It will be fun to see how fast the free-market rats flee jump from the sinking ship. The Bush administration has signed on. John McCain, who told us in his acceptance speech that he wanted government to get out of the way will certainly endorse this instance of government getting in the way. A few principled conservatives in very safe districts are begging off the bailout, but the fact is something must be done. At his ranch in California, Ronald Reagan, who famously stated that “government is not the solution, it is the problem” is turning over in his grave. Government is now the only solution because the businessmen Reagan celebrated as the very embodiment of Americanism have failed both financially and morally.

Politically, the real winner last week was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Whenever an economic crisis brings comparisons to the Great Depression, Americans, especially older Americans, turn their thoughts to FDR who pulled America out of that crisis, psychologically, politically and, finally, economically. The "invisible hand" of market forces has created a mess and the visible hand of government must restore balance to the free enterprise system.

Obama is Roosevelt’s heir in this election, so the benefit will accrue to him if he plays his cards right. If I were working on debate preparations with the Illinois senator, I would be having him read Roosevelt’s fireside chats. FDR understood that in times of crisis, Americans want their government to do something. In one of those fireside chats, on May 8, 1933, FDR told the nation “I have no expectation of making a hit every time I come to bat. What I seek is the highest possible batting average, both for myself and for the team.” If Obama can channel the spirit of FDR that resides in those words “for myself and for the team” he will win the election.

Michael Sean Winters

The Election & The Court

Last Sunday’s edition of the New York Times included an editorial, “The Candidates and the Court”, which reminded readers that the next President will almost certainly select at least one Supreme Court justice and warned that Sen. McCain “is likely to complete President Bush’s campaign to make the court an aggressive right-wing force.” In many ways, the piece echoed Prof. Cass Sunstein’s recent Boston Globe op-ed which complained about the “extremism” of Republican judicial appointees and the ominous threat they pose to “choice”.

Well, one should always take New York Times editorials about the Supreme Court with a grain of salt. In the bizarro-world from which they proceed, “extreme” is simply code for “at odds with the preferred, left-leaning policy outcomes of those who write editorials for the New York Times” while those whose decisions facilitate those outcomes are, of course, “moderate.”
But even if the Times is an unreliable source when it comes to understanding the Court, and the Constitution, the editorial does get one thing right: The President does nominate federal judges, and it seems pretty clear that Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain have different ideas about such judges’ role and responsibilities. So, what should Catholics think? Many Americans say that “the courts” are a major factor when they evaluate candidates. Should they be? Does the Court really matter?

Short answer(s): Yes, it does, but not as much as people think, and more than it should.
The Court matters “not as much as people think”, because most cases are not ideologically charged, 5-4 splits, but instead involve the lawyerly resolution of technical disputes about the interpretation of federal statutes. And, of course, “We the People” – speaking through Congress – can always correct or undo such interpretations, if we disagree with them. So, a Catholic who prefers, for example, increased regulation of “business” need not worry too much if a “consumer” loses in a particular case; she remains free to lobby for a change in the law.

Things are different, though, when it comes to the divisive and difficult questions of morality and social policy that the Court has – in many cases, mistakenly – constitutionalized, which is why the Court matters “more than it should.” When the Court decides that We the People no longer have the right to decide certain questions – for example, should unborn children be protected in law and welcome in life – the democratic conversation is cut off, dialogue is shut down, and the chance for compromise withdrawn. Because the Court has assumed for itself the task of answering so many questions that people, quite reasonably, care so much about, the Court matters “more than it should”, and so it matters who picks our federal judges. Catholics should know, then, that federal judges selected by a President McCain would be (much) more likely to, for example, permit reasonable regulations of abortion, religious expression in the public square, and legislative experiments with school choice than would judges appointed by his rival. This is a fact. And it matters.

Rick Garnett

Monday, September 22, 2008

Virtue Has Its Virtues in Politics

How about doing virtue scans on the candidates in this crucial election? Surely such background checks and assessments would lead to better choices than simply listening to campaign rhetoric and spin. Predictions of actual responses to future challenges can be most accurately based on virtuously developed habits of moral behavior.

Virtues are on my mind because I’m working my way through a young friend’s admirable new book, Introducing Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues by William C. Mattison III. Bill has done a fine job presenting the importance of the moral virtues, and in an engaging way that will appeal to his college students.

Chapters discussing the different virtues are interspersed with discussions of test cases, such as alcohol use and premarital sex. The first half of the book is devoted to the four cardinal virtues of temperance, courage, justice and prudence, which can be open to every reasonable person, and then the last half of the book treats the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.

As I read along, the thought experiment of assessing the present political candidates on their respective cardinal virtues became irresistible, however rough and ready the judgments.

First, the virtue of temperance seems to be equally displayed by the two slates. As a matter of fairness only present adult behavior should be counted. McCain is no longer a beer drinking and hell raising young midshipman and naval aviator, and Barack Obama the exemplary family man has left experimentation and inhaling far behind in the past.

Courage and fortitude also appear evenly matched on the tickets. Obama has had to overcome barriers of racism and Biden has triumphed over family tragedy and serious illness. Sarah Palin has taken on sexism, entrenched establishments and met her own family challenges.

Most famously, John Sidney McCain III has displayed the courage of his family’s military tradition in bravely enduring torture and the after effects of imprisonment in Hanoi Hilton.

While profiles of courage abound equally in our present election choices, the virtues of justice and prudence are definitely not evenly distributed. Obama and Biden in their past careers show a far greater concern for liberty, equality, peace and justice. They do not display misplaced loyalty on behalf of family and friends.

The gap grows even larger when it comes to the all important virtue of prudence. Prudence is “the virtue of choosing well” or the acquired capacity of accurately sizing up situations and making good practical decisions. Prudence is the preeminent virtue since as “the charioteer of the virtues,” it governs when and where a person deploys other virtues. Unfortunately, courage displayed in pursuing a bad cause can be dangerous.

Prudence comes from past experiences in making wise, responsible, well thought through choices-- not impulsive and not flamboyant ones. An unwillingness to accept guidance from others is also fatal to prudence.

In my estimation, John McCain and Sarah Palin, for all of their lively magnetic qualities are far outdistanced by Obama and Biden in exercising the virtue of prudence.

Appropriately, Biden and Obama have both taught constitutional law, and are well versed in the most prudent instrument for governing ever invented. When the checks and balances of the U.S. Constitution are arbitrarily flouted, disasters descend.

While no voter can control the future in this precarious and unsettled period they can seek to elect the most virtuous and prudent leaders possible. My own choice is obvious, and as my granddaughter's answering message on her cell phone has it, "I think you know what to do."

Sidney Callahan

Four Soundbites (& Venues) For Obama

Barack Obama’s convention speech was the last time he had the undivided attention of the American people to make a sustained argument for his candidacy. The debates will be critical as everyone agrees. But, in the meantime, he can frame the race by delivering four soundbites that hit on key issues and, just as important, flesh out what he means by change and the promise it holds for the voters who will decide the election. Those voters are white, ethnic Catholics with no college education, who make less than fifty thousand dollars a year, living in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan and Latinos who will prove decisive in Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico.

1) “If we could convert our factories in a few months after Pearl Harbor from making cars to making tanks and planes, we can convert our factories today from making gas guzzlers to hybrids. Don’t tell me we can’t do that – We haven’t tried!”
Setting: In front of a factory in Michigan, ideally one that was built before World War II but that is less important than the can-do message. In the event, he is not only sketching a very specific kind of change that would improve the environment and bring much-needed jobs to hard-hit Michigan, he is linking that promise to a specific history that is a source of national pride. As an added benefit, it touches his personal biography: Obama’s grandmother went to work in a factory during WWII.

2) “You shouldn’t need a college degree to fulfill your dreams.” Setting: In a speech to students at a vocational school in Ohio. Obama often refers to the difficulty in affording college as an example of the economic tough times. But, many people are not going to college and non-college, blue collar voters has been a particularly difficult demographic for him to crack. This is a line that should have been in his acceptance speech but it speaks directly to those voters whom Hillary Clinton called the forgotten and the invisible. Obama needs to stop forgetting them.

3) “Do we really want government agents separating parents from their children? Pope Benedict was right: We need family-friendly immigration reform.” Setting: The St. Bridget’s Church in Pottsville, Iowa, the town that witnessed a large immigration raid last May. The church became a place of sanctuary after the raid as the town struggled to find homes for the children whose parents were arrested. This is the message Latinos care about but it also resonates with traditional ethnic Catholics in the East. This family-first approach also resonates with evangelicals. Not least, the issue makes McCain squirm because he had to backtrack on his previous support for humane immigration reform in order to secure the GOP nomination.

4) “You all helped John F. Kennedy win his battle against anti-Catholic bigotry. I need you to help us win another battle against bigotry today.” Setting: The monument to the “Fighting Irish Brigade” at Gettysburg, a brigade that consisted of Irish Catholic regiments from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York and fought a crucial part of the battle on Day 2 at Gettysburg. Obama is reluctant to face the race issue head-on, understandably. But, circumstances might require it, as they did last spring, and for the same reason: Pastor Jeremiah Wright. In retrospect, this monument might have been a better backdrop for the speech about race Obama gave at the Constitution Museum in Philadelphia, a speech that played soaringly to his vision of America but did not necessarily connect with the white, ethnic Catholics whose votes he needs. But, if Wright or some other cause requires Obama to address the race issue, he should tie his struggle to the fight against bigotry that Kennedy faced. As Governor Barry Schweitzer said in his speech to the Democratic National Convention, he grew up in a home which, like virtually every Catholic home, had a crucifix and a picture of JFK.

Obama needs to keep the focus off of the cultural template in which he is an elitist and McCain (the guy with nine houses) is the average Joe. That means directing the message. He needs to talk to swing voters about their memories and their dreams, and connect them to his vision for America’s future. Pictures are worth a thousand words and, at this stage of the campaign, you don’t get a thousand words. But, a few well-placed soundbites, with the right backdrop, could help Obama connect with the voters who will decide his political fate in November.

Michael Sean Winters

Friday, September 19, 2008

Questions for the Presidential Candidates

One week from today, the eyes of voters will turn to Mississippi for the first presidential debate of the 2008 general election. The editors of America have put together a list of some of the questions they feel should be asked. The online editorial can be found here.

Matt Malone, S.J.

Why Are Some States Purple?

It is a good thing for democracy that more states are in play this year. Too often, the debates, the television ads, the Get-Out-The-Vote organizations, ignore large parts of the country because they are considered indelibly red or blue. A Republican could, in theory, try to contest Rhode Island or a Democrat contest South Carolina, but it would be a waste of resources. This year, the larger pool of states up for grabs means that more people will be exposed to the political process and, hopefully, will focus on the issues more closely. But, this larger electoral pie begs the question: Why are some states purple?

The most common reason for going purple is a change in demographics. In Virginia, over the past few years, the suburban communities outside of Washington have been growing like wild goldenrod. Many of the new residents are more affluent and socially liberal than the farming communities they are displacing. There is also a large contingent of Latinos in the northern Virginia electorate. The principle demographic change this year has been the increase in voter registration numbers in these heavily Democratic counties in the north and in the heavily African-American counties south of Richmond.

These demographic changes can be accentuated by finding the right, purplish, political leadership at the state level. In Virginia, the current Governor is a centrist Catholic, Tim Kaine, whose ambivalence on issues like the legality of abortion and enforcement of the death penalty could not be cast as weakness by his political opponents because of Kaine’s ability to tie that ambivalence to the admittedly complicated task of intermingling one’s Catholic beliefs with practical political decision-making. For example, on the death penalty, Kaine has said he opposes it and wants the state to oppose it, but that it is unlikely to do so and that he would fulfill his oath of office to enforce the laws and order executions. His predecessor, Mark Warner, shed the liberal elite label in part by buying a NASCAR team and campaigning heavily in the state’s rural areas as a non-ideological guy who could fix the fiscal mess the GOP had created. (Sound familiar?) Warner is facing his predecessor, Republican Jim Gilmore, in Virginia’s U.S. Senate race and Warner is leading in the polls by almost twenty-five points.

Virginia, however, has not voted for a Democrat in a presidential contest since 1964 when Lyndon Johnson won in a landslide. Still, the combination of changing demographics, respected local Democratic office holders, and a spike in voter registration among African-Americans and young people, all have made Obama think he can win it. The most recent polls show McCain holding a slight lead of two or three points in the Old Dominion. Conversely, in Georgia, the Obama campaign has pulled its advertising buys in that state after they did not meet their voter registration goals and McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin solidified the GOP brand for Christian conservatives.

Michigan is a reliably Democratic state with a frighteningly unpopular Democratic governor. The Detroit area has a long history of racial tension dating back to the 1968 riots: It remains one of the most segregated cities in America. The Southwestern part of the state is home to many Christian conservatives, such as the Seventh Day Adventist community built up around their flagship Andrews University and an array of denominational organizations, such as publishing houses, that surround it. Macomb County outside Detroit is the home of the original “Reagan Democrats,” lifelong Democrats who nonetheless voted for Reagan in 1980. Still, there have been no huge demographic change to alter the political landscape, except for the wild card issue of Obama’s race.

Obama did not compete in the Democratic primary here because the state party moved its primary date forward, breaking the rules of the Democratic National Committee. McCain lost the GOP primary here to Mitt Romney, whose father had been a governor here, by nine points. In addition to the unpopularity of the state’s Democratic governor, the mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick, just resigned his office as part of a plea bargain that has him headed to jail.

Colorado looks more like Virginia than Michigan. Population growth in liberal parts of the state combined with a moderate Democrat in the governorship. In addition, the state has a popular first-term Democratic Latino Senator, Ken Salazar. The Democrats decided to hold their convention in Denver in part to highlight the changing politics of the state. Most polls have Obama leading by a small margin.

Virginia, Michigan and Colorado could join such perennial toss-ups as Ohio and Florida as three of the most hotly contested purple states in the nation. Other states that the Obama campaign thought might be in play – Georgia, Montana, North Dakota – have all been moving slowly but steadily back into the GOP fold. The McCain would love to make a play at New Jersey, but advertising in the New York media market is cost-prohibitive. Barring a major development, or major mistake, in the race, 2008 will have more purple states in play than 2004, and that is fundamentally a good thing for a democracy.

Michael Sean Winters

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Vote On The Debates!!

America magazine’s special election blog needs your students!

After each debate, we would like to get immediate reactions from students: Who won? The students can select in advance the student or students to whom they will email or text-message their verdicts. The tellers can then email or text-message us. We will put the results up on the website immediately and will alert your local newspapers also!

For the information to be even more meaningful, and for students to better understand the effects of debates, we suggest that before the debates, teachers poll the class on which candidate they support. If this is done, in addition to the question “Who won the debate?” we can ask “Who do you support now?” If there is an increase or decrease in support for a given candidate, the students will see the power of debates to affect elections. If there is no such change, the students will see how our political judgments are often more deeply rooted than will permit us to change our allegiance on the basis of a single debate. There is a value in both alternatives: We should be open to new information, but there is also a difference between being grounded in one’s opinions and being close-minded. Where to draw the line? And how do the presidential debates illustrate the difference? These are interesting and important questions that this exercise can open up.

So, if you are interested, please let us know by emailing us at: blogelection@aol.com.

Are Catholics Racist?

Yesterday’s front page story in the New York Times headlined the abortion issue and its decisive role for many Catholic voters. The pages of this blog, which is less than a fortnight old, have already shown the wide variety of opinions on that issue and I suspect there will be further debate about abortion policy and the politics of that policy as the campaign progresses.

But, what jumped off the page with the same stomach-turning surety you get when watching a slow-motion car crash at the movies was the racism of the comments made by the people at Scranton’s Holy Rosary Catholic Church. The one overt racist remark – asking if the name of the White House would be changed - caused the rest of the parishioners to “hush” him. At least everyone knew it was wrong to say that.

What has to worry the Obama campaign was the reaction of a different voter. The Times reports: “But more said they now leaned toward Mr. McCain, citing both his experience and his opposition to abortion. Paul MacDonald, a retired social worker mingling over coffee after Mass at Holy Rosary, said he had voted for Mr. Kerry four years ago and Mrs. Clinton in the primary but now planned to vote for Mr. McCain because of ‘the life issue.’” The difference between Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Barack Obama is not, alas, where they stand on “the life issue.” All three are solidly in support of Roe v. Wade and of the three, only Obama mentioned reducing abortions in their six speeches at the last two conventions.

It is, of course, possible that this voter has changed his own views on abortion in the past four months since the Democratic primary when he voted for Clinton. But, is it not more likely that the life issue has become a mask, an acceptable reason not to vote for Obama that covers the real reason: he is black.

There were few Catholics in the South and those who were there were mostly in favor of the civil rights movement. Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle of Washington began the desegregation of the Catholic schools in Maryland before the Supreme Court ordered the public schools to do so in 1954. When some conservative lay people met with O’Boyle and suggested that it would take years, maybe even a decade, for the people to be ready for desegregation, O’Boyle said, “Thank you gentlemen, but we are going to do it tomorrow.” O’Boyle gave the invocation at the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King shared his dream with America.

The tension between Catholics and blacks happened later and in the North. When Dr. King tried to end the de facto segregation of some neighborhoods in and around Chicago he met the same hatred and hostility he had met in Mississippi. Then came the “white flight” to the suburbs after the riots following Dr. King’s murder. The 1970s witnessed the conflicts over busing in many northern and Midwestern cities. At root, all of these conflicts involved the issue of tribalism or ethnic identity, an issue that goes back further than Bernstein’s “West Wide Story” and has a similarly unhappy ending.

Racism is a complicated phenomenon. I wrote about it on these pages here and Father Kavanaugh wrote about it for the magazine here. It has been mostly under the radar screen through most of the campaign. Pastors of souls should take to their pulpits in the next few weeks and discuss it openly: There are many reasons to vote for Barack Obama or to vote against him, but the color of his skin is not one of them. "Catholic" is a word with a meaning and it is the exact opposite of hateful tribalism.

Michael Sean Winters

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Playing To & Against Type: Economics and Elites

John McCain and the Republicans have two problems when they address the meltdown on Wall Street, and both of those problems will now be with them through the end of the campaign. Fortunately for them, the Democrats have an uncanny ability to lose an election that should be a walk in the park.

The first problem for the GOP is that they have to play against type and defend it. Republicans are the party of big business, the party of entrepreneurs, the party of businessmen and businesswomen, the Chamber of Commerce party. Except when they’re not. And, yesterday, the Bush administration agreed to nationalizing AIG, the biggest insurance company in America. That’s right. The government bought it and now runs it.

I don’t remember when was the last time I heard someone advocate nationalization of an industry, although anyone who has flown on the government-run airlines of Europe, Air France, Lufthansa and the rest, should know better than to dismiss the idea out of hand. As discussed yesterday, we live in an age that has celebrated the free market’s triumph over the planned economies of former communist states and seen that triumph in eschatological terms: Francis Fukyama’s famous book was called “The End of History” not “Capitalism is Better.” Nationalization was the kind of suggestion that you would expect from Dennis Kucinich, not from the Bush Administration.

Which leads to the second problem the GOP has, and this may prove even more intractable for them. For the next seven weeks, they have to speak about the economy, but all their applause lines are useless. At the GOP convention, McCain promised to get government out of the way and everyone stood and cheered. In that same speech, McCain inaccurately said Obama wants “government-run health care” but now that charge is not only inaccurate but it would sound ridiculous when the government is taking a much more activist posture than anything Obama has suggested. In March, McCain told the Wall Street Journal “I’m always for less regulation,” the kind of sentiment that warms the entrepreneurial hearts, but he has suddenly had to become the champion of more regulation this week.

You would think that the Democrats would know enough to just get out of the way and let the internal contradictions of the GOP’s position take hold in the imagination of the American voter. Instead, there was Obama, playing to type, flying to Hollywood for a star-studded fundraiser that was a caricature of elitism right down to having Barbra Streisand singing. This is how it is done in Hollywood. David Geffen and his pals get together and they go through their rolodex and they raise a lot of money, but they expect the candidate or the cause to pay them homage and attend an event where they can all look fabulous. I’m guessing Babs sang “Send in the Clowns”!

Obama should have been smart enough to send his regrets. The Hollywood folk still would have raised the money. But, on a day when Americans are worried about their finances, attending a glitzy fundraiser that netted $9 million was not the way for Obama to show his down-to-earth credentials. Obama gave away some of his advantage by appearing as out-of-touch personally and the GOP has become fiscally. He partially made up for it, however, with a new ad that was released this morning. Campaigns don't usually take out two minute ads at this stage of the campaign, but this is the best ad he has run all year.

Michael Sean Winters

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Big Mo' -- Part II

The Big Mo' may have just shifted again. The implosion of the financial markets, which former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan recently called "by far" the worst economic crisis in his lifetime, has once again made the economy issue #1 in the presidential race. While the demise of Lehman Brothers and some other former financial powerhouses is bad news for the economy and for a lot of workers, at a strictly political level, it is good news for the Obama campaign.

Last week, I wrote about how momentum influences and drives an election. Over the last several weeks, the Palin pick and the Obama campaign's lack of message discipline gave McCain the chance to seize the Big Mo' by positioning himself as the agent of change. With the Wall Street disaster on the front page of every newspaper and the topic of choice around every water cooler, several things have happened:

First, people have stopped talking about Sarah Palin. That's bad news for McCain, because she is his symbol of change and 2008 is the Platonic form of a change election. Every news cycle that is dominated by Sarah Palin (the size of her crowds, her take-no-prisoners, folksy commitment to reform) is a good day for the McCain campaign, yet she is fast becoming old news.

Second, McCain has been forced to talk about the economy and, once again, he has taken very careful aim and shot himself right in the foot. For nearly the twentieth time in this election cycle, McCain told an audience (on the day of Lehman brothers bankruptcy filing) that the "fundamentals of the economy are strong." Now, to be fair, I know what he meant. The economy, though facing a crisis and almost certainly headed toward recession, is not about to fly off of a cliff. The U.S. economy is a complex system with in-built safeties designed to prevent a recession from becoming a depression.

But in politics, as we know, perception is reality. And when McCain uses this phrase, people are likely to think that he is a bit aloof when if comes to their very real pocketbook concerns, prompting among them the kind of head shaking that accompanied his assertion that he did not know how many houses he owns.

Lastly, the Obama campaign has imposed a renewed discipline on its message. It has stopped talking about Palin and is talking everywhere to anyone who will listen about the economy, the economy, the economy. U.S. voters trust the Democrats more to handle the economy and it is historically true that in bad economic times the party out of power tends to benefit. If the economy remains THE issue occupying the news cycle, the Big Mo' may move Obama's way.

Matt Malone, S.J.

Sowing and Reaping on Wall Street

The campaign took a sudden turn back to reality yesterday. For weeks we were treated to discussions of who was, and was not a celebrity, lipstick on pigs, bridges to nowhere and the such. Yesterday, with the Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy, bargain basement sale of Merrill Lynch, and the collapse of the Dow by more than 500 points, the economy roared back to center stage like Hurricane Ike through Texas. The economic turmoil, like the destruction in Galveston, was all the more gripping because everyone appeared powerless over the forces unleashed. The economy, like the weather, is a non-predictable phenomenon, or so we have been led to believe.

What we also witnessed yesterday was the poverty of contemporary liberalism. Democratic operatives took to the cable news shows to say that the crisis had shifted the focus from cultural issues to a real issue, the economy, as if economic matters had no affect on shaping the culture, or the culture on shaping the economy, and as if economic issues were more “real” than cultural issues. Somewhere in Minnesota, the Rev. Msgr. John A. Ryan was turning over in his grave.

Msgr. Ryan was a professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of America and head of the Social Action Department at the U.S. Bishops’ Conference. In 1919, he drafted the Bishops’ statement on social reconstruction in the wake of World War I and the document recommended many of the programs that we would associate with the New Deal more than twelve years later: Social Security, unemployment insurance, government employment programs, child labor laws. Indeed, Ryan became an enthusiastic supporter of and collaborator with Franklin Delano Roosevelt: In 1936, Ryan gave a nationwide radio address explicitly urging Roosevelt’s re-election that was paid for by the Democratic National Committee, showing how differently the role of religion in politics was at that time.

The New Deal was a response to the crisis of industrial capitalism that Ryan saw as early as 1919 but that the nation only recognized after the onset of the Great Depression. The events of this week have been compared to the Great Depression, and they are undoubtedly severe, but they are being viewed through a different ideological lens. Then, our system of government and social organization, a small “d” democratic politics and a capitalist economy, was challenged by both fascism and communism. The New Deal was enacted as a way to strengthen our system in its moment of crisis without abandoning the political and economic freedoms that we enjoyed.

But, Roosevelt and FRyan recognized that they had to save capitalism from itself. Ryan referred to the 1920s as a time of “industrial paganism” and denounced the “dictatorship” that had descended over large parts of the nation’s economy. Dom Virgil Michel, the Benedictine liturgist was equally withering in his critique of contemporary capitalism: “Capitalism degrades men to mere economic factors, to be bargained for at lowest possible market prices…workers are still treated as individuals, but not as persons, and therein lies the moral vice of capitalism.” It still lies therein.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the anticipated triumph of democratic capitalism as the only way of organizing society was almost a given. A famous book was entitled “The End of History” because it argued there was nothing left to argue about. Alas, human history has a way of defeating such lofty prognostications. Russia has returned to its autocratic ways, resembling not so much its communism heyday as its czarist past. And, now, Wall Street is in disarray and looking to what was only yesterday considered the “intrusive government regulators” for a lifeline to save itself.

It may be expecting too much of a political campaign to shape a fundamental debate on the silly ways we Americans have spoken about the economy in recent years. There has been an unarguable rule that competition is always and everywhere the best approach to a problem, not merely of the distribution of goods and services, but in education for the young and social insurance for the aged. Liberals have denounced policies that favor the rich, but they have been reluctant to advocate government regulation of the economy. John McCain and Sarah Palin have promised to “get government out of the way” and that appeals to our sense of rugged individualism.

Yesterday, on Wall Street, the great leaders of our economy were desperate for government to get in the way. Regulation ceased being a bad word. The economy, unlike a hurricane, is a human creation and can be ordered as such. Pity it took a catastrophe for such simple truisms to be given their moment in the sun.

Michael Sean Winters

Monday, September 15, 2008

Doug Kmiec On Obama's Abortion Stance

For a different point of view from that expressed below by Mark Stricherz, be sure to read Doug Kmiec's article on Obama's abortion stance available on America's homepage. Doug was a reagan appointee, dean of the law school at the Catholic University of America and is a longtime pro-life advocate.

Why the Democratic Abortion Strategy is Worse

In his Wall Street Journal op-ed, David Gibson argued that the Democratic Party's strategy to reduce abortion is more effective than that of the GOP's:

[E]ven overturning Roe would not end abortion. It would only turn the matter back to the states, most of which are not likely to eliminate the right to abortion. Moreover, new research sponsored by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good shows that "social and economic supports for women and families dramatically reduce the number of abortions" -- a strong argument for a broad-based approach like Mr. Obama's. As Mr. Kmiec told the New York Times, "the better question is how could a Catholic not support Barack Obama?"

On its face, Gibson's claim is hard to believe: The party of NARAL, the National Abortion Federation, and NOW will reduce abortion more than the party of the National Right to Life Committee, Focus on the Family, and the Christian Coalition? It is an implausible claim -- and the closer you look at it, a false one. The GOP's abortion strategy is better -- far better.

For one thing, the Democratic Party platform continues to support the expansion of taxpayer-financed abortions. This is not idle talk. Democrats are serious about it. On President Clinton's first day in office, he issued an executive order overturning the Mexico City policy, which probihited U.S. dollars being spent on organizations that perform abortions or provide abortion counseling; the policy was not rescinded until 2001 when President Bush took office. In addition, President Clinton signed into law the expansion of funding of abortion through Medicaid. Obama has pledged to do the same things.

Government funding of abortion increases rather than decreases the abortion rate. As the study commissioned by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good points out, which Gibson failed to mention, Medicaid funding of abortion is associated with an increase in the abortion rate by one-tenth.

Granted, government can promote economic policies to reduce abortion. The CACG study notes that removing the family cap on welfare and increasing welfare funding by $1,350 per person is correlated with a 31 percent reduction in the abortion rate. Now, I don't doubt that Democrats would be far more likely than Republicans to remove the family cap, which would lower the abortion rate by 16 percent. But it is unlikely that Democrats would spend $1,350 more per peson on AFDC-TANF payments, the sum that the study's authors say is necessary to realize a 20 percent drop in the abortion rate.

For another thing, as Rick Garnett notes, national Democrats oppose any real legal protections for unborn infants. This is a key point that both Gibson and the CACG study overlook. (It is also directly contrary to Catholic social thought. As the Catechism says, “From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.”)

If Roe were overturned, dozens of states would do more than ban partial-birth abortion or enact parental consent laws; they would ban abortion in the "easy" cases -- economic and familial circumstance, psychological and emotional reasons, etc. Banning abortion in these cases would not only be possible; more than three-fifths of Americans support banning abortion in the "easy" cases. It would also be desirable; more than 90 percent of abortions are performed for those reasons.

Just consider the chart below. When abortion was illegal in all but the hard cases, abortion was rare, or relatively so. Now it's not. Indeed, the abortion rate is more than a quarter higher today than in 1973.

Number of abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44, by year

It is clever and counter-intuitive to argue that the Democratic Party's abortion strategy is better than the GOP's. But it is not true.

Sunday Talk Shows: News & A New Stroyline

The Sunday morning news shows – NBC’s Meet the Press, ABC’s This Week, &c. – are not actually watched by that many people. But their power comes from two distinct sources. First, they interview people who actually make news. Second, they are watched by local news affiliates and newspaper reporters, so they shape the coverage of the news. This past weekend, they did both and in both cases it was bad news for John McCain.

The news came on ABC’s This Week when Alan Greenspan, the longtime former head of the Federal Reserve, told George Stephanopoulos that the current financial crisis was a once in a century event that was not yet done wreaking havoc on the rest of the economy. Within hours, his comments were headlining the Huffington.com website. Greenspan, rightly or wrongly, is considered an oracle on economic matters and his word cuts through the haze of conflicting economic prognostications: If Greenspan says the economy is in the tank, it really is in the tank.

In another interview this weekend, Greenspan said he did not support John McCain’s tax cuts, and watch for the Obama campaign to pick up on that quote. But, Greenspan’s views on prospective tax cuts, which were guarded, are a distraction for the Obama campaign right now. Obama needs to get the focus off of personalities and back on the economy. People who don’t give a whit about politics pay attention when Greenspan speaks on economic matters. Obama does not need to try and turn the remarks to partisan advantage: They will do that all on their own and have all the more power for their coming from an oracle. The news this morning that Lehman Brothers is filing for bankruptcy only confirms Greenspan’s grim diagnosis.

The storyline that began to surface on the roundtables was potentially more damaging for the McCain campaign. The pundits have begun to question McCain’s veracity. For a candidate who has put honor and integrity at the center of his biography, being tagged as a liar is a very real problem.

For a week, Democrats have been complaining about the untruths that were being used in GOP ads and in the stump speeches of both McCain and his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin. Her opposition to earmarks and the infamous Bridge to Nowhere were repeated long after they were proved to be exaggerations at best. The tipping point, however, was a McCain ad that attacked Obama for supporting age appropriate sex education for K-12. The ad claimed Obama supported comprehensive sex education for kindergarteners, when in fact, he supported teaching five-year olds how to avoid sexual predators, not "comprehensive" sex education.

The sex education charge seemed to have struck a nerve with the media but the serious questioning of McCain came from an unlikely source: the women on "The View." Barbara Walters and Co. were relentless in their questioning of the Arizona senator. Joy Behar was blunt: "Now we know that those two ads are untrue, they are lies. And yet, you at the end of it say you approve these messages. Do you really approve these?"http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video_log/2008/04/john_mccain_on_the_view.html
On ABC’s Sunday show, most of the twenty minutes of roundtable discussion focused on how McCain was forfeiting his reputation for decency and was waging the kind of campaign he once promised never to engage. The normally unflappable Wolf Blitzer, CNN’s Sunday host, questioned GOP analyst Tara Wall’s assertion that it was Obama not McCain who was imitating Bush. "Hold on. Obama is not about to keep the Bush tax cuts," Blitzer said with disgust in his voice. Even on Fox, GOP uber-strategist Karl Rove admitted that McCain’s ads were "beyond the 100 percent truth test."

McCain is not running his campaign of lies because he wants to. He is doing so because he has been convinced by his advisors that this is the only way to beat Obama and the Democrats. The advisors are right. With a sagging economy and an electorate tired of a long drawn out war in Iraq with no clear objective or exit strategy, the only way McCain can win is to demonize Obama and claim the mantle of change agent for himself. But, as it says in the good book, what doth it profit a man to gain the whole world but to lose his soul? In the event, with seven weeks to go and the media already unwilling to let him run a campaign of lies, McCain may lose both his soul and the election.
Michael Sean Winters

Friday, September 12, 2008

Abortion and Obama's "Catholic Problem": Another perspective

In his September 11, 2008 "State of the Campaign" post, Michael Sean Winters focused on Sen. Obama's "Catholic Problem" and noted that "[b]oth parties have certain difficulties they must overcome if they are to meet with success in Catholic precincts." This is, without question, true. What he said next, though, is not - or, so reasonable and faithful Catholics could easily conclude.

Michael wrote: "The GOP has become the party of social Darwinism, their economic policies are about the survival of the fittest, and they never speak about the common good except when invoking a vague, and militaristic, brand of patriotism." Suffice it to say that many who are every bit as formed by Catholic Social Teaching and every bit as committed to the common good as Michael is will reasonably find this charge quite unfair. There is plenty in the Church's social-justice teachings to challenge both parties on matters relating to the economic order and the common good.

As for the claim that "[t]he Democrats are better than the GOP on social justice issues the church champions" - well, yes and no. To mention just one example, what about school choice? On few policy questions is Church teaching so clear: Parents have, as a matter of social justice and religious freedom, a meaningful right to send their children to a religious school. The Republicans tend to support school choice; Sen. Obama - like the teacher-unions who exercise so much power in the Democratic Party - opposes it.

Michael also wrote that the Republicans "remain the 'pro-life' party but increasingly, many pro-life voters, especially younger pro-life voters, are questioning the value of carrying the GOP's water: 35 years after Roe, what exactly does the pro-life movement have to show for its affiliation with the Republicans?"

A lot, actually. Here, the facts are stubborn. Since Roe, the Democratic Party has stood - unwaveringly, without compromise - against even the mildest regulations of the abortion license, has made the preservation of Roe's anti-democratic power-grab one of its highest priorities, and has made it clear that not only should abortion-rights be protected, they should also be funded with public monies, both here and abroad. The Republicans, on the other hand, have fought for (and won) limitations on public funding of abortions, the confirmation of Justices willing to reconsider Roe, and reasonable restrictions on abortion (like the ban on Partial Birth Abortion, parental-notice laws, 24-hour waiting periods). The "Republicans have been all talk and no action on abortion" claim is, demonstrably, false. There are hundreds of pro-life executive orders, regulations, statutes, and other actions that have been taken by Republicans, and resisted by Democrats.

Many pro-life Democrats are working to pursue policies aimed at reducing the number of abortions, even within the Roe regime. This work is commendable; pro-life Republicans should join it. (One wishes, though, that Sen. Obama would join these efforts by signing onto the Pregnant Women Support Act. So far, he has not.) But Michael's claim that Sen. Obama's approach and positions represent a departure, in the right direction, for Democrats is extremely hard to sustain.

Readers should look up, and read carefully, the so-called Freedom of Choice Act, the passage of which Sen. Obama has pledged will be among his highest priorities. This law will sweep away all pro-life legislation and other regulations of abortion, require public funding of abortion, and remove legal protections for the conscience-rights and religious-freedom of health-care providers and facilities that object to abortion. Its passage would be a breathtaking set-back for the pro-life cause, one that could not be excused by Sen. Obama's promise of more support to pregnant women.

A few days ago, on September 2, Cardinal George reminded Chicago Catholics that "one cannot favor the legal status quo on abortion and also be working for the common good." He also reminded us all that "our present laws permit unborn children to be privately killed. Laws that place unborn children outside the protection of law destroy both the children killed and the common good, which is the controlling principle of Catholic social teaching." "The unborn child," he emphasized, "who is alive and is a member of the human family, cannot defend himself or herself. Good law defends the defenseless."

Sen. Obama not only supports, but is enthusiastically and entirely committed to protecting, our "present laws" - that is, the laws that "permit unborn children to be privately killed." No doubt he would prefer that fewer abortions take place. Still, on the basic point addressed by Cardinal George, Obama's position is clear: Unborn children ought not to be protected by law; the choice for abortion ought to be legally protected; judges who would revisit Roe ought not to be confirmed.

So, back to the "Catholic problem": Catholics can, and should, find plenty in Republican positions and policies to criticize. When it comes to the fundamental human rights issue of our time, though, it should be a "problem"
not just for Catholics, but for all of us, that the Democrats remain so badly misguided.

Rick Garnett

Mark Stricherz on Catholic Bosses and Values Voters

Mark Stricherz, author of Why the Democrats are Blue: Secular Liberals and the Decline of the People's Party, sat down with me yesterday to discuss his book, and why he doesn't think Barack Obama will win the vote of "values voters." Listen to our interview here.

First-time listeners can subscribe to our podcast here.

Tim Reidy

State of the Campaign #5: Ground Game

In addition to having a winning message, and a biography that allows viewers to envision you are president, and a strategy for winning 270 electoral college votes and the ability to bring Catholic swing voters into your column, you need to get your voters to the polls. You need a ground game, dedicated field workers who have organized precinct-by-precinct, know who plans to vote for you and a way of checking up on them come election day. In 2004, the GOP beat the Democrats on the ground but this year may be different.

The other day, I got a text message from the Obama campaign. Like many Americans, I signed up to be notified of Barack Obama’s vice-presidential pick by text message, and to sign up I had to give them my cell phone number. They let me know that Biden was the pick. They asked me to donate to the Red Cross when Hurricane Gustav hit Louisiana. And, then Wednesday, I got the message: “Get info on how to vote at VoteforChange.com You can get registered, apply to vote absentee or find your polling location. Fwd msg to 5 friends!”

Sarah Palin may not know what the Bush Doctrine is but everyone knows what the Obama campaign doctrine is: organize, organize, organize. The decision to hold his convention acceptance speech at a football stadium in front of 84,000, despite the logistical nightmare (creating a plan B in case of rain, filling a stadium, distributing tickets, etc.), was made because they perceived a way to sign up volunteers. There was no charge to get into Invesco Field, but you had to provide your email and cell phone and promise to volunteer. That night, the Obama campaign added 45,000 names to its volunteer rolls. It is doubtful that John Kerry had 400 volunteers in Colorado in 2004.

The downside of the long primary for the Democrats was that it kept Obama from being able to focus entirely on the Republicans and created some bitterness in the ranks. The upside was that 36 million people voted in the Democratic primaries, an all time record. There was a ton of excitement but just as important there were hundreds of thousands of newly registered voters. Since 2006, more than 2 million new Democrats have been registered in the 28 states that tag party affiliation. In that same period, Republicans have lost 344,000 voters in those states.

According to the AP, changes in voter registration are central to Democratic confidence in some key swing states. Obama lost the Pennsylvania primary to Hillary Clinton by nine points. He has struggled with the white, ethnic, Catholic voters who prove decisive in the Keystone State. Since 2006, Democrats have added 375,000 new voters in Pennsylvania while the GOP has lost 117,000. The margin of 500,000 is more than twice as large as Kerry’s 2006 margin of victory in Pennsylvania: Kerry beat Bush by 194,000 votes.

Obama had hoped that aggressive efforts to register voters in traditionally red states like George and North Carolina could turn those states purple. This week, we learned that he is pulling staff out of Georgia: McCain’s successful convention and, even more, his choice of Sarah Palin, has strengthened his candidacy among evangelicals sufficiently that Georgia now appears out of reach for the Democrats. Virginia has become a battleground, however largely because of voter registration efforts. The Old Dominion does not register by party affiliation. But of the 202,000 new voters registered since the start of the year, 64 percent are younger than 35, a demographic that Obama should win handily. Kerry did not even contest Virginia in 2004 and Bush won the state by 262,000 votes.

You never know how your ground game does until election night. The effort to organize, register and mobilize young people has been a theme for Democrats for a long time, but no one has been able to get young people to vote in numbers commensurate with their share of the electorate. The Obama camp is using new technology and new organizing tools to get young people to the polls. If the election is as close as the polls indicate, the ground game could be the difference.

Michael Sean Winters