Friday, October 31, 2008
This morning’s Washington Post reports that the McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee are putting less money into their GOTV efforts and using that money for a wave of final television ads aimed at late deciding voters. This decision may make sense for the McCain campaign: The only way they can win this is if virtually all the undecided voters break his way so raising doubts about Obama in the last weekend of the campaign is his only option. But, why would the RNC give up one of its strongest cards when it has House and Senate races on the ballot also?
I have always doubted the efficacy of television ads at the presidential level. There are so many ways to get independent information about the candidates, there is so much press coverage, the debates garnered a great deal of attention, people discuss the issues at the barber shop and in the grocery line. TiVo has even further diminished the reach of broadcast advertising. And, most ads run during local news programs, and those are the people who are most likely to be larger consumers of news and therefore have plenty of information about the candidates already.
Ads can accomplish some things. They can be used to fill in biographical details, which is one of the principal ways Obama has used them. They can be used to raise doubts about an opponent, which is the principal way the McCain camp has used them. Both tasks are better done earlier in the campaign.
The final weekend of the campaign is about building up enthusiasm among your supporters to make sure they get to the polls. That is why these huge Obama rallies bode so ill for McCain. The Obama campaign appears fired up. They have the most extensive GOTV organization in memory. And, in states with early voting, the people who attend the rallies go en masse to the local polls and cast their ballots.
One of the good things about our unnaturally long campaign process is that voters can tell how the candidate manages a large organization, what kind of strategic decisions they make, and how they implement those decisions. The McCain campaign has made a hash of some of its most important decisions from the vice-presidential selection to this latest decision to take resources away from the GOTV effort that they know has worked in the past. And the constant in-fighting within the McCain campaign continues to attract the press which loves to report on intramural warfare and prevents the campaign from getting its message out.
The Obama campaign, on the other hand, has been a model of strategic planning and execution. When was the last time you heard a story about in-fighting within the Obama camp? The emails and text messages from the campaign come regularly, advising people about how to register to vote, deadlines, upcoming events, etc. And the message of the campaign has been consistent across the long 18 months of Obama’s quest.
If the way you run a campaign tells us anything about how you will run the White House, Obama is looking better all the time.
Michael Sean Winters
Thursday, October 30, 2008
In 2004, a grassroots organization in Ohio called “Catholics for Kerry” asked the campaign to send a surrogate to one of their events. They were told, “We don’t do white churches.” Turns out, if you “don’t do white churches” you also don’t get to do the White House.
This year, you don’t have to ask twice if you are a religiously motivated voter and you want some attention from the Democrats. Several groups have sprung up to articulate and amplify those parts of Catholic social teaching that correspond with more progressive policies and they are taking to the airwaves to promote their message.
Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good has been busy all election season, hosting conference calls with reporters, preparing voter guides and now running a campaign that includes billboards, print ads and most importantly an extensive radio campaign. For samples, click here. http://www.catholicsinalliance.org/ad-campaign. As you can guess from the group’s name, the ads focus on the need to replace the social Darwinism that has reigned in America lo these many years since Reaganomics first began its idolatry of the free market with social policies that bring people together. Solidarity, not competition, is the theme and it could scarcely be more resonant as the nation comes to grips with the greatest economic challenge since the Great Depression. The ad campaign is running in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Missouri.
The group Faith in Public Life is mounting a ten-state ad campaign on Christian radio stations. The ad states: “We need to ask ourselves what it really means to be pro-life and help move the conversation beyond bumper sticker slogans…It's time for Democrats and Republicans to come together around solutions based on results, not rhetoric. Please learn more by visiting http://www.realabortionsolutions.org/.” The website includes statements from a host of religious leaders about the need to find some common ground on abortion.
Matthew25.org has been busy on the airwaves also. This group is the brainchild of Mara Vanderslice, who won the hearts of many religiously motivated Democrats in 2004 when she cheerfully served in the often thankless job of religious outreach director for the Kerry campaign. They are more explicitly partisan – they have endorsed Obama - and they have been running ads for a couple of months on Christian radio, highlighting Obama’s faith as much as his policy positions, making him familiar to a largely evangelical audience.
Voices from the right have been busy as well. “Catholic Answers” is distributing voter guides again this year. Randall Terry, the pro-life activist, has issued a document called “Faithful Catholic Citizenship” that reflects what he calls “the authentic magisterium,” a not so subtle jab at the U.S. Bishops’ document “Faithful Citizenship.” He also has issued “An appeal to Catholic priests” – but viewer discretion is advised. In the video Terry stands before an altar and displays an aborted fetus, which struck this viewer as tasteless, turning a tragedy into a prop.
I am no believer in averting our gaze from the horror of abortion, but the issue between Catholics in Alliance and Randall Terry is not whether abortion is good or bad but how we can best approach the issue. Some were moved when they watched “Silent Scream” and others were repulsed, but in a democracy the key is to convince and to do so in a way that respects the views of those with whom we disagree. My friends on the Left and my friends on the Right disagree about how to advance the pro-life cause but both groups should enjoy the presumption of good faith in their earnestness to prevent abortion.
Michael Sean Winters
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
City Journal has a story arguing that the country does not need another war on poverty. Because LBJ’s War on Poverty treated the poor as victims rather than citizens, it fostered dependency rather than empowerment. Over at First Things’ blog, Amanda Shaw endorses author Stephen Malanga’s thesis:
The problem, of course, is that many things have been tried, and the unsuccessful ones are being dusted off and re-gifted to the American public; if we don’t know precisely what does work, we certainly do know what doesn’t.
One problem with Malanga’s and Shaw’s argument is its premise that “the federal government lost its War on Poverty.” This is highly misleading. Poverty rates actually fell in the 1960s. In 1960, more than a fifth of Americans were poor; in 1969, one in eight were. See the accompanying chart below.
Another problem with their argument is the claim that the Republican-led policies of the 1990s succeeded. Welfare reform took millions off the dole; new police tactics and strategies cut the crime rate. For all of the good that these policies achieved, they did not reduce the poverty rate significantly.
Yet if Malanga and Shaw are to be believed, the policies that reduced poverty failed, while those that have not succeeded. This is the logic of Orwell's Ministry of Truth.
It is largely true that Barack Obama’s anti-poverty proposals (and John McCain’s for that matter) would not help the poor much. Community Development block grants rarely bring jobs to a neighborhood; at best, they shore up the local housing stock. Extra spending on urban education, such as to build gold-plated schools, won’t raise student achievement much. Such programs are aimed more at middle-class political constituencies than the marginalized.
It is true that some of the War on Poverty’s policies failed. As Nicholas Lemann in The Promised Land pointed out, its maximum feasible participation clause posited a link between political and economic empowerment that does not exist. It might have given state and local officials the impression that they should make it easier to get and stay on welfare.
And it is true that some of Malanga’s proposals could reduce the poverty rate. More federal funds should go for prisoner re-entry programs and charter schools; tighter standards should be applied to federal public housing.
Yet Malanga is silent on why those policies work: acculturation. Their aim is to instill middle-class mores and habits into the down and out. For all of the talk about the poor’s economic needs, their cultural and spiritual needs are neglected. As this is an era of family breakdown, as Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam have noted, such policies are doubly necessary. (These policies are also surely consistent with one of the goals of subsidiarity, the Catholic principle in which a “community of a higher order” (i.e. the federal government) supports but does not supplant a community of a lower order” (i.e. local government or agencies.)
Although the 1960s War on Poverty failed politically, one of its guiding principles did not. Unlike its 1990s counterpart, it conceived of the poor in their totality (or near totality). The elderly poor, the white rural poor, the black urban poor – all were included in its purview.
What the country surely needs now is a program with the best of the old and new: the scope of LBJ’s policies with an acculturation strategy aimed at bolstering the poor’s families and institutions.
The first problem for McCain is that virtually every competitive swing state is a state that George W. Bush carried last election. Put differently, all the states that John Kerry won in 2004 are solidly in the Obama camp. McCain continues to contest Pennsylvania, but Obama leads there by a margin of 52.1% to 41.6% according to the average of statewide polls published by RealClearPolitics.com (and from which all figures in this post are taken.) What is striking about the Pennsylvania spread is not only the fact that it is in double digits, but that Obama has cleared the 50% threshold. That means in the remaining days, McCain would have to convince voters who have already decided to back Obama to reconsider their choice and change their minds. That is tough to do this close to the election.
Other swing states tell a similar tale. In Colorado, Obama only leads by 6 points but he has 51.5% of the RCP average. In the critical state of Ohio, Obama’s numbers float just above, or just below, the majority line: in today’s average, Obama has 49.8% to McCain’s 43.4% but he would probably rather still have yesterday’s average which had him at 50.3% to McCain’s 44.3%. It is difficult to see how McCain will win either state unless Obama commits a game-changing self-inflicted wound.
In Florida, Obama leads McCain 48.4% to 45.1%. It is conceivable that all those who have not yet made up their minds could break to McCain, but it is doubtful. In Indiana, Obama’s lead is even narrower – 47.4% to 46.0%. In both states, McCain would only need to convince presently undecided voters to come his way, which is why his campaign is trying still to cast doubts about Obama’s readiness to lead.
The nationwide polls vary all the time but most of that is just white noise. They go up a little or down a little, but tracking polls have a relatively small daily sample size so such fluctuations are inherent in the exercise. As Nate Silver pointed out, on any given day, the tracking polls reflect the views of 3,539 respondents but the statewide polls that came out yesterday reflected more than 22,000 interviews. So, the statewide polls are likely to be more accurate. More importantly, the popular vote does not elect the president, the Electoral College does, so the statewide surveys are the only ones that matter.
The Obama campaign is relying upon heavy turnout from first-time voters, especially from those who have been under-represented in the past, especially poor blacks and young people. And, voting is not always an easy thing to do, as a story out of North Carolina shows.
So, it ain’t over until the fat lady sings as the saying goes. But, the fat lady is in her dressing room and she has just finished her make-up.
Michael Sean Winters
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
To be clear: No one technically “palled around” with these neo-Nazis. Sarah Palin did not go moose hunting with Cowart and Schlesselman, nor did her allies in the press nor her allies in the press, from Sean Hannity to Mark Stricherz, go bar hopping with the duo. There was no “palling around” because there was no casual relationship. There was something actually far worse: a causal relationship. For, surely, one of the mitigating factors Cowart’s and Sclesselman’s attorneys will point to is the fact that for several weeks a Governor of one of the fifty states, who had secured her party’s nomination for the vice-presidency of the nation, and a variety of serious media outlets had broadcast as newsworthy and significant the “fact” that Barack Obama “palled around” with terrorists.
We all know that terrorists are enemies of the United States so someone who “pals around” with them must at the very least be aiding and abetting the terrorists. Isn’t that what Palin meant to suggest? Young men and women wearing the uniform of the United States are engaged currently in two wars fighting terrorists who threaten our nation. Why should we stand idly by while one of the terrorists’ allies stealthily wins political support when our brothers and sisters are fighting against the same terrorists abroad?
You can hear the objection: We never told anyone to kill! We never told anyone to purchase a short-barreled shotgun, or two handguns, or a rifle and ammunition (all of which were found in Cowart’s and Schlesselman’s possession)! True enough. But, it requires a willful ignorance not to know that questioning the patriotism of the first black candidate for president might capture the attention of racist haters, that suggesting a casual connection between Obama and terrorism was a variety of hate-mongering, and that, long after it had been demonstrated that there was no meaningful relationship between Obama and Ayers, continuing to raise the issue amounted to shouting “fire” in a crowded arena. You can drive one hour from our nation’s capital (to the north or south, I might add) and find KKK and other racist memorabilia. The arena of racism is a crowded one and shouting “fire” is literally incendiary.
I do not believe that any of those who rehearsed the Ayers story wanted Obama dead. I also believe that their language was designed to raise doubts in some, even at the risk of raising hate in others. Such language is most certainly not exculpatory for these neo-Nazis, but is certainly a mitigating factor. I recognized all along, what Mr. Cowart and Mr. Schlesselman did not recognize, that the Ayers story was merely an attempt at character assassination, not real assassination. It was merely a revival of McCarthyite smear tactics, but no one told the neo-Nazis it was just a smear campaign. The confusion should not let Cowart and Schlesselman off the hook for their criminal acts and intents, but neither should it excuse the shameful acts and intents of those who stoked their hate.
Michael Sean Winters
All three of these statements, and the defenses made on behalf of them in the subsequent days indicate a dangerous trend in political name-calling. Democrats have gotten used to certain names thrown at them by Republicans (East Coast/West Coast/ Massachusetts Liberal, Big City Boss), but to call the very spaces that they are from "un-American" or not "real" America is to go beyond the pale. It is a new breed of geographic McCarthyism that exacerbates the already tenuous divide between red states and blue states.
What exactly is meant by "real" or "pro-" America? One of my favorite sites for political information, fivethirtyeight.com, provided an interesting demographic definition. Using information from the US Census, statistician Nate Silver looked at the ethnic make-up of the cities visited by Palin and Obama since the time that Palin was announced as the VP nominee. Interestingly enough, most were whiter than the US population as a whole, and most were smaller communities instead of big cities.
Palin, whether she intended to or not, was framing urban America as something not quite "American". Pfotenhauer did likewise by suggesting that Northern Virginia, including the urbanized areas of Arlington and Alexandria, were somehow less Virginian than the rest of the Commonwealth.
The bias against the urban space is not new. From the days of Jefferson, there has been an idealized version of America that focuses on rural and small town life. The Republican party has used anti-urban rhetoric with varying degrees of success over the last 150 years. For example, fear of "urban" Democrat Al Smith was effective in contributing to his loss in the 1928 election. Sometimes the strategy backfires, however. In 1884, The Republican criticism of the Democratic Party as the party of "rum, Romanism, and Rebellion" enraged New York City Catholics to the point that they handed the Republicans their first loss in the presidential race since the Civil War.
Coming from a suburb of a Midwestern city to the BosWash Megalopolis, I have found that the Eastern Seaboard is in no way less "American" than the part of the country I come from. In fact, its heterogeneity and multiplicity of ideas (including some that may occasionally be unpopular) makes it American. The diversity that makes up a place like Northern Virginia speaks to the way that people with different cultural histories can come together and provide individuality within community. Catholics, with our historic American roots in the urban space, know this fact better than others, and should be the first to defend the diversity of the city not as "un-American", but simply a part of the American experience.
As McCain and the Republicans get more desperate, I would anticipate more tactics of this nature. Playing on anti-urban bias, particularly against a candidate who made his political name on the South Side of Chicago, will become a more desirable action as the election draws closer. In an attempt to rally the base, the Republicans will try to play to the apprehension rural and suburban voters have for urban lifestyles. The best we can hope for is that all voters can see beyond the "un-American" label to cast their ballots on the issues.
Monday, October 27, 2008
When the church leadership takes the jump from enunciating clear moral policy to “implying” political votes for a party or candidate, they inevitably miss the mark.
I take Cleary’s point: church leaders should not imply votes for or against any candidate. To do so would be to violate the spirit of church consensus. As Michael Sean Winters noted accurately, The bishops’ document "Faithful Citizenship" says, "In fulfilling these responsibilities, the Church’s leaders are to avoid endorsing or opposing candidates or telling people how to vote.”
Yet contra Michael, Chaput has not urged Catholics to vote against Obama. Instead, the archbishop has criticized the Democratic candidate’s position on abortion, as well as his supporters. Opposing a candidate and criticizing his policies one are not the same. Criticism means disapproval; it doesn’t mean opposition. Most of us criticize candidates regularly; this doesn’t mean we won’t vote for them.
Naturally, this raises the question: Why hasn’t Archbishop Chaput criticized John McCain for his support of another evil -- federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. Last month, Fran Maier, the chancellor of the Denver archdiocese, explained the archbishop’s decision this way:
In fact, the archbishop has voiced his criticism of embryonic stem cell research directly to Sen. McCain. He’s had no similar invitation or opportunity to meet with Sen. Obama. Moreover, the Republican Party platform rejects embryonic stem cell research. In fact, anyone interested in the contrasts between the two party platforms on this and related life issues simply needs to compare them.
Fran’s words invite questions. Would Chaput not have criticized Obama publicly if he had agreed to meet with the archbishop? Did Obama reject Chaput’s offer to meet with the archbishop?
In my reading of the evidence, Chaput is not a partisan. But surely he could explain his position about public criticism of candidates and their positions on various evils more fully.
Michael Sean Winters
Then, Scranton Bishop Joseph Martino interrupted a forum trying to discuss the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document “Faithful Citizenship.” That document was adopted by the entire hierarchy last November with 97.8 percent of the bishops voting in favor of its passage. But, according to Bishop Martino "No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese…The USCCB doesn't speak for me."
Now, Bishop Rene Gracida, the retired bishop of Corpus Christi, has made a commercial that states no Catholic can vote for a pro-abortion candidate and that “Barack Hussein Obama is a pro-abortion candidate.” Bishop Gracida, you may recall, made such a mess of his diocese that he found himself in civil court being sued by his brother bishops in Texas. And, his radio ad is being distributed by Randall Terry, famous for starting Operation Rescue. “I want you to just let a wave of intolerance wash over you,” Terry said in 1993. “I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good.... Our goal is a Christian nation. We have a Biblical duty, we are called by God, to conquer this country. We don't want equal time. We don't want pluralism.” Charming.
Bishop Gracida and Terry deserve each other. It is hard to believe that the reference to Obama’s unfortunate middle name served any useful, still less Christian, purpose. But, while they may at the bottom of the slope, Chaput and Martino are on the same slope: They fail to see why it is inappropriate for clergy to endorse candidates by name.
It is undoubtedly the role of the hierarchy and clergy to help the laity form their conscience. But, selecting a candidate is the end of the process of conscience formation. The prelates have allowed their concern for abortion, which is understandable, to color their assessment of the value of different approaches to the issue, which is up for debate, leading them to oppose Obama by name in public, which is inappropriate.
Why is it inappropriate? The bishops’ document “Faithful Citizenship” says, “In fulfilling these responsibilities, the Church’s leaders are to avoid endorsing or opposing candidates or telling people how to vote. As Pope Benedict XVI stated in Deus Caritas Est, ‘The Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest. . . . The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible.’”
But, there is another reason. Voters have to assess not only a set of policy positions but the character of the candidates. The three prelates dismiss the distinction the Obama has drawn between being pro-choice and being pro-abortion. Given the history of the Democratic Party on the issue, their suspicion is understandable: could Obama merely be giving lip-service to abortion reduction? But, what to make of John McCain “straight talk” when he says that he believes life begins at conception and, in the very next breath, affirms his support for embryonic stem cell research? Which would be better for the pro-life cause: a sincere Obama who promotes abortion reduction or a cynical McCain who does only what is needed to manipulate pro-life voters? Maybe Obama is not sincere and maybe McCain was as confused as Nancy Pelosi when discussing embryonic stem cell research. It is up to voters to make such determinations, not prelates.
In the end, the stance of Chaput, Martino and Gracida harkens back to the days when the laity were expected to “pray, pay and obey.” But, we lay people will not be infantilized. I saw 100,000 people fill downtown Denver yesterday to cheer on Obama. Their archbishop should realize that his approach is ill-advised for another reason: It is not working.
Michael Sean Winters
Friday, October 24, 2008
Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput is getting no love, to use the parlance of the day, from progressive Catholics. Doug Kmiec implies that Chaput is biased against Democrats, saying that he "singles out" their policies for criticism. Michael Sean Winters writes that Chaput is “the second most vocal supporter of the GOP.” Journalist David Gibson suspects that "the bottom of [Chaput's] argument is that a Catholic cannot vote for Obama." All three statements are mischaracterizations. And it reflects, I think, a larger misunderstanding that progressive Catholics have about their co-religionist opponents.
Obviously, we have other important issues facing us this fall: the economy, the war in Iraq, immigration justice. But we can’t build a healthy society while ignoring the routine and very profitable legalized homicide that goes on every day against America’s unborn children. The right to life is foundational. Every other right depends on it. Efforts to reduce abortions, or to create alternatives to abortion, or to foster an environment where more women will choose to keep their unborn child, can have great merit—but not if they serve to cover over or distract from the brutality and fundamental injustice of abortion itself … Yet for thirty-five years I’ve watched prominent “pro-choice” Catholics justify themselves with the kind of moral and verbal gymnastics that should qualify as an Olympic event. All they’ve really done is capitulate to Roe v. Wade.
This position is not, strictly speaking, Republican or Democratic. It was also the late-career position of Robert P. Casey, Sr., the late Democratic governor of Pennsylvania. On the third day of the 1992 Democratic convention, Casey organized a full-page ad in The New York Times which called Roe “the most momentous act of exclusion in our history.” Casey also opposed the re-election of Mark Singel because Singel, in a reversal of his previous position, came out for Roe.
In addition, Chaput’s position echoes that found in the Catechism:
The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation:
… The moment a positive law deprives a category of human beings of the protection which civil legislation ought to accord them, the state is denying the equality of all before the law. When the state does not place its power at the service of the rights of each citizen, and in particular of the more vulnerable, the very foundations of a state based on law are undermined. . . . As a consequence of the respect and protection which must be ensured for the unborn child from the moment of conception, the law must provide appropriate penal sanctions for every deliberate violation of the child's rights."81
Now, our two parties have official positions about Roe. The Republican’s platform calls for the passage of a human life amendment, which if enacted would reverse Roe; the Democrats’ platform calls for preserving Roe. Naturally, the archbishop has made a descriptive statement about the GOP: that on cultural issues the GOP is “the natural ally” of the church.
It is true that Chaput has criticized pro-choice Democrats, such as Barack Obama. But that's because they favor abortion rights, not because they are Democrats.
Yet Chaput has made no prescriptive statements about the Republican Party; he has not endorsed, or even praised, one of their candidates for office. In fact, he said in an interview that “we are not with the Republican Party. They are with us.” That’s hardly the statement of a GOP booster.
If Chaput were a GOP supporter, he would say nice things about a Republican pro-life candidate instead of a pro-life Democratic one. Chaput said no such thing. For example, he didn’t imply support in 2006 for Bob Beauprez, the Republican opponent of Bill Ritter, the pro-life Democratic gubernatorial candidate (and now the state’s governor).
If Chaput were a GOP supporter, he would have said nice things about Rudy Giuliani, who was a leading Republican presidential candidate this year. Chaput said no such thing. Instead, he told Newsweek that Catholics would have to discuss their options:
"What if a candidate were right on all the issues except racial discrimination?" asked Denver's archbishop, the Most Rev. Charles Chaput. "Why isn't [abortion] as important as that?" If Giuliani is the nominee, Chaput says, Catholics will have to choose between the lesser of two evils or stay home from the polls in protest.
For what it is worth, I suspect that the archbishop is a Democrat. He invited me to give the annual Bob Casey lecture at the archdiocese. In talking with him, I learned that he is as much of a strong pro-life Democrat as Casey himself. As a young seminarian, he worked as an “active volunteer” for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968. He supported Jimmy Carter’s presidential bids in 1976. He opposed the Iraq war and some of the GOP’s attempts at cracking down on illegal immigration.
Chaput has offered encouragement to Catholics who oppose abortion but don’t seek to criminalize the procedure. But his position, as well as that of Casey, is that overturning Roe is foundational.
This makes sense to me. Consider the issue of slavery. In 1857, the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott declared that black Americans were the property of their masters. Was it really possible to oppose slavery but favor Dred Scott?
This is a question that I think that progressive pro-lifers need to ask.
UPDATE: I forgot to mention that the pro-life committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement Tuesday that criticized the notion that seeking to reduce the abortion rate was a sufficient pro-life strategy.
The conventional wisdom is not exactly accurate. (As is often the case, only Chris Matthews gets it right.) The economy did not displace moral issues: The economy is a moral issue. Providing for one’s family is a moral obligation, one that is suddenly uncertain. Buying a house and making the mortgage payments is a moral accomplishment, requiring discipline and delayed gratification. Faulty economic theories were part of the reason for the credit crunch, but greed has played its part. The anger felt on Main Street is not mere anti-elitism: The barons of high finance treated people’s hard-earned life savings as mere fodder for risk-taking. An economy that had been characterized by an idolatrous worship of the laws of the market suddenly sees the need for social solidarity in the form of government bailouts.
The economic crisis, in short, is more than an economic crisis. It is a cultural crisis, even a spiritual crisis. Years of easy credit and easy living had put a hefty materialistic id into most people’s identity. In the rush to acquire the latest technological gizmo from Ipods to Iphones, our culture defined success in terms of expensive stuff. The heroes of that culture had houses in the Hamptons, Mercedes-Benzes in the driveway, and lobbyists on K Street creating ever larger tax breaks for their companies. Magazines like Architectural Digest ceased to be about the aesthetics of architecture and instead became a kind of glossy consumer pornography, filled with photos of the latest, niftiest advances in creature comfort, none of it particularly beautiful.
Most importantly, an entire nation that had been led to believe that the good life could be charged ("Life takes Visa!" proclaimed the ad) suddenly had to ask itself what really mattered. The gods of Mammon have been pulled down from their pedestals. What will take their place?
Americans are not sure what they want, but they know they want a change and they have turned to the candidate who has made his name synonymous with change for 18 months of his long campaign. Obama has economic proposals at the ready, but it remains to be seen if he can help Americans answer this larger question: What matters? To him falls the task of re-negotiating the social contract, a task that is as enormous as it is infrequent. How will he inspire the country to take off in a new direction and what will that direction be? How can he lead the nation to meet not only its economic challenge, but the cultural and spiritual challenge posed by the economic downturn?
In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced similar socio-economic challenges and he responded with the New Deal, a phrase he unveiled in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. "What do the people of America want more than anything else?" FDR asked in that same speech. "To my mind, they want two things: work, with all the moral and spiritual values that go with it; and with work, a reasonable measure of security--security for themselves and for their wives and children. Work and security--these are more than words. They are more than facts. They are the spiritual values."
These more homely values are easily forgotten among the policy-making and policy-shaping classes. Candidates, their aides, their policy advisors and the media that cover them, all enjoy the kind of professional success that permits them not to worry about meeting the mortgage payments. But, Obama started to channel FDR last Saturday in St. Louis when he said, "It comes down to values – in America, do we simply value wealth, or do we value the work that creates it?" He should listen to Roosevelt’s fireside chats in the days and months ahead: Despite his patrician roots, FDR addressed the anxieties of all Americans with an almost unique mix of confidence and solidarity.
Abortion, gay marriage, immigration policy, our militaristic foreign policy and a host of other moral issues still matter to Americans. To some they are still decisive. But, for most Americans, their more primordial moral concern for home and hearth has come to the fore. Like FDR, Obama must find the political opportunity in the current crisis, and that opportunity is deeper than flipping Virginia and Ohio from red state to blue. It is time to re-draw the social contract to reflect values greater than acquisitiveness. It is time to create a tax structure and a regulatory scheme that rewards work other than the creation of "financial instruments" that bear a remarkable resemblance to a ponzi scheme. It is time to promote social solidarity through universal health insurance and better worker-retraining programs for those displaced by global competition. Obama must articulate this moral vision that animates his economic program, a moral vision that speaks to and for those in middle America who have been struggling for a long time.
Michael Sean Winters
Thursday, October 23, 2008
Michael Sean Winters
The central question was this: Is there a “Catholic vote” anymore and, if so, what will drive it in the 2008 election cycle? The different panelists had their own opinions on this question, but the one point of consensus was that we don’t really know yet and won’t know until we get the exit polls on election night. There are a lot of shifting templates in the geography of this election, some of them tectonic like the historic tension between white, ethnic Catholics and African-Americans, and some of them ephemeral like how much Sarah Palin spent on her wardrobe.
One of the biggest questions is whether or not young people will turn out. There is convincing data to show that young Catholics, and indeed most young Americans, break disproportionately for Obama. Young evangelicals remain more firmly entrenched in the GOP column, but they are the exception not the rule. While pollsters and statisticians are understandably wary of high-end projections of youth turnout, which we have seen before but it has never quite panned out, I think this year will be different. Young people know that this year they can make history. Voting for Al Gore in 2000 would have set the country on a far different course from the one George W. Bush has taken us but no one at the time felt that voting for Gore was “taking part in history.” If Obama wins, all Americans (except the racists) will have to feel good about the fact that race was no impediment to his attaining the highest office in the land. Even if you think his policies will be a disaster for the country, breaking down racial and ethnic barriers is an undeniably good thing and an undeniably American thing.
There was a great deal of discussion about the abortion issue and how it will play. After the panel, a young woman came up to ask me if I knew that Barack Obama intended to increase the number of abortions in this country. She was bristling with hostility. I said during the panel that I think one of the reason Obama has to deliver on his pledge to find common ground on abortion is that so many of us are tired of the two sides shouting at each other, and part of his political persona is that he can be a bridge builder. And, if he wins, we pro-life Democrats must keep his feet to the fire on his pledge.
The emergence of Catholic Latinos as a critical voting bloc was also a focus of much attention. They are the fastest growing demographic in the entire electorate and they are already decisive in such key swing states as Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. If the next president delivers on humane immigration reform, he will earn the loyalty of the Latino vote for his party for a generation.
Catholics this year will lean blue like the rest of the country but they remain a distinctive voting bloc, with different cultural reference points, different historical family narratives &c. For too long Democrats ignored this distinctiveness, but Obama seems to get it. It may help him get to the White House and, even more, it may help him build a governing coalition once he gets there.
Michael Sean Winters
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
The question has been the subject of some controversy in recent days. Bishop Martino in Scranton showed up at a politics forum that was discussing the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference document “Faithful Citizenship.” Instead of commending his flock for listening to, and discussing, the bishops’ instruction, he denounced the text: “The USCCB does not speak for me,” he thundered.
Of course, the question has a perennial quality to it. Whether or not you can put lipstick on a pig, you can’t just plunk the label “Catholic” on an organization and make it so. There is a group “Catholics for a Free Choice” that really does not seem to evidence any awareness of Catholic anthropology. Conversely, I watched EWTN the other night and was appalled at their “more Catholic than the Pope” attitude towards the faith as well as the amateurish understanding of politics evidenced by host Raymond Arroyo. In their thirst for nostalgia they seem to have ignored such basic and observable phenomena as the fact that Pope Benedict did not bar anyone from the communion rail during his visit to America last April.
Archbishop Chaput of Denver made sure the audience he addressed last Friday night understood that in his comments criticizing Barack Obama and his Catholic supporters, he was not speaking as an archbishop but as a “private citizen.” Of course, the Catholic women’s group who invited Chaput did not invite any other private citizens as their guest speaker. “Thou art a priest forever, by the order of Melchizadech” sings the psalmist, except, evidently, when you choose to speak as a private citizen. Clerics are entitled to their political opinions, of course, but it is smoke and mirrors to give a public speech “as a private citizen” when wearing a pectoral cross.
A voting guide put out by the group “Catholic Answer” not only claims it is speaking for the Church, but that there is only one answer to whatever conceivable questions you have. The voting guide issued by the liberal Catholic group “Catholics United” has a more balanced approach, analyzing the candidates’ positions on a variety of issues. But, neither organization has a canonical mission so while both can be consulted (and the “Catholics United” voter guide is well done), they do not carry any kind of ecclesiastical imprimatur. Communion and Liberation does have a canonical mission, and its voter guide is the best of the bunch: It is relentlessly abstract.
Relentless abstraction has its place. The same night the Bishop of Scranton was denouncing his confreres, I attended a presentation by Msgr. Stuart Swetland for the group Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS). He gave a fine and even-handed presentation of the Church’s teachings. In the Q-and-A, someone asked for whom he was going to vote and he declined to answer. “I think it is a mistake when a priest indicates who is going to vote for,” he said. “You all have to decide for yourselves how to apply the Church’s teachings to the concrete circumstances of the election.”
So, who speaks for the Church at election time? You do. We all do.
Michael Sean Winters
After living most of my life in what most would consider the "heartland" (Pittsburgh, PA), I embarked to this town to study at the George Washington University about two months ago. Contrary to the popular portrayal of "Washington elites" in the media, what I found was a lot of people just like me. Most people on the street are very friendly, and though it's occasionally a hassle to have your walk home disrupted by the presidential motorcade or the ambassador of some country, the capital is in many ways just a normal, American city.
However, one of the unique factors of going to school in a the city of Washington is that there are very few people who are actually "from Washington" (though there are a fair number who hail from suburban enclaves in Maryland and Virginia). I have met people from across the country (and across the globe) who chose to attend school in Washington, and others who have gravitated to DC after college. The diversity leads to a lot of different perspectives on the presidential race, and also a lot of knowledge about Senate and Congressional races all across the country.
Though the District of Columbia's 3 electoral votes are hardly in play, the capital is an incredible place to be when preparing for an election. DC is across the Potomac from Virginia, and students from most of the DC universities (including both the College Democrats and College Republicans) have been canvassing Northern Virginia for over a month. On GW's campus, both organizations have had multiple speakers in preparation for the election. Hundreds of students have attended watch parties for the presidential debates. The weeks immediately before the election promise to be even more active, with phone-banking and last minute canvassing trips to North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
As the country gets ready to elect the new president, my classmates and I prepare to greet our new neighbor three blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Alex Pazuchanics, GWU
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
What doesn’t bode well for McCain is that the percentage of voters who are undecided or leaning his way is less than 50 percent. Put differently, nationally and in most of the key swing states, Obama has crossed the 50% threshold. So, even if his five-to-seven point lead dwindles to a three point lead, he still wins if the election ends up 51% to 48%.
Obama’s strength in the polls is the result of a couple of key swing constituencies turning blue this year. Two recent polls by the organization Faith in Public Life focused showed Obama winning the support of young Catholics and Hispanic evangelicals by decisive margins. Older Catholics (age 35 and up) divide evenly between McCain (46%) and Obama (44%) but Catholics aged 18-35 broke for Obama by a margin of 55% to 40%. In states with large concentrations of Catholic voters, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, this emerging generational divide could make the difference.
The second poll looked at the opinions of Hispanic evangelicals. This is a group that broke overwhelmingly for George W. Bush in 2004, 63 % to John Kerry’s 37%. This year, however, the poll showed Obama garnering 50% of the Hispanic evangelical vote to McCain’s 34%. Latino evangelicals are only a third of the total Hispanic vote, and they lag slightly behind their Catholic brethren in support for Obama. But, Bush won 44% of the total Latino vote in 2004 and McCain will be lucky to win a third. This swing among Hispanic voters is critical to Obama’s apparent lead in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.
The reasons for the switch among young Catholics are many and varied but the change in Latino evangelical voting is directly related to the GOP’s anti-immigrant posture. Not only do Latinos overwhelmingly support humane immigration reform, but 77% of Latino evangelicals link their views on immigration to their religious beliefs. In short, the GOP’s careful cultivation of the “party of religion” label is unconvincing to Latinos who have read in Leviticus that we are called to welcome the stranger. These voters remain suspicious of the Democrats: Obama has not addressed the immigration issue in the direct, values-laden way these voters see it. But, they know that McCain backtracked from his previous support for a path to citizenship for undocumented workers in his effort to win the GOP nomination. He threw them, and their families under the bus.
Immigration is a different kind of political issue from debates over the federal budget deficit or the environment. The impact is direct and immediate on a distinct portion of the electorate. If the Democrats embrace humane immigration reform, they will win the political loyalty of Latinos for a generation or more. That could put Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico in the Democratic camp for a long time and the GOP will have to find a different route to that magical number of 270 electoral votes.
Michael Sean Winters
Monday, October 20, 2008
These reports are inaccurate, though – at least, we should hope that they are.
To be clear, the purist-libertarian fantasy of Ayn Rand novels and the early Rush albums is not what we have (thank goodness). Indeed, as the Washington Post editorializes today, the "market that failed" was not free: "We are not," the Post observed, "witnessing a crisis of the free market but a crisis of distorted markets." This is true, and it is true of many of the social and policy problems that are often chalked up to excessive economic freedom. The housing market and the credit environment – like, for example, the agricultural sector and so many others – are not unregulated, they are not arenas in which incentives operate, prices are set, and risks are taken without interference by government. Even in our "free" markets, regulation is ubiquitous.
As we move forward, and no matter who wins the election, let’s remember this fact: Reasonably-regulated-but-largely-free markets are tremendous forces for good and engines of creativity worth celebrating and protecting. The world needs more of them, not fewer. To be clear: to say this is not to deny the importance of government’s task, or to baptize selfishness, or to deny the overriding public obligation to the common good. It is merely to join the late Pope John Paul II in insisting that the great principles of the Catholic Social Thought tradition – including a "preferential option" for the poor, and "solidarity" among all persons – are likely to be best realized through the responsible exercise of human freedom – including economic freedom – and not through centralized command-and-control schemes.
For all the focus on endorsements, the limited power of surrogacy has been shown again and again in this campaign. When Ted Kennedy endorsed Barack Obama in January, experts predicted Kennedy would be able to deliver the Latino vote in California on Super Tuesday. Hillary Clinton not only won the Latinos in California, she won Kennedy’s home state of Massachusetts as well. Hillary Clinton had the early support of such prominent black congressional leaders as John Lewis and Stephanie Tubbs Jones, but they couldn’t deliver the black vote.
There was a time when the endorsement of a labor union really mattered and at the local level, the financial and organizational strength of unions is still important, especially in Democratic primaries. But, the union vote supported Ronald Reagan in 1980, Reagan busted the Air Traffic Controllers Union the next year, and yet he still won the support of most union households in 1984. Many blue collar workers today are ambivalent about supporting Obama.
Catholic bishops fare no better. For the past four years, no bishop has been more vocal in his opposition to the Democratic Party than Archbishop Raymond Burke, who served in St. Louis from 2004 until this past June when he was appointed to a desk job in Rome. This past weekend, St. Louis produced the largest crowd of the campaign so far, when 100,000 people turned out to cheer on Barack Obama. This beat the record of 84,000 set in Denver, home to the nation’s second most vocal supporter of the GOP, Archbishop Charles Chaput. Ever since Scranton’s Bishop Joseph Martino announced Joe Biden was barred from receiving communion in his diocese, Pennsylvania has been turning bluer and bluer.
There is one group of surrogates who really matter: average people. At this point in a campaign, an undecided voter is more likely to be moved by the enthusiasm of a neighbor or relative than by anything said on “Meet the Press” by Colin Powell or in the Denver Catholic Register by Archbishop Chaput. Which leads us to the really big news of the weekend: Not only did Obama raise more money in one month than any candidate in history, his campaign has received donations from more than three million people. And, you can bet that someone who has opened his or her wallet is not going to be shy about telling friends and relatives how they are voting and why.
Winning Powell’s endorsement gave Obama a good news cycle, putting McCain on the defensive. Powell’s message was also remarkably on point, calling Obama “transformational” and calling out McCain for his selection of the underwhelming Gov. Sarah Palin as a running mate. But, it is the local hairdresser who sent in $10. to the Obama campaign and has a half hour with each of her clients the next two weeks whose endorsement will really help Obama turn out his vote and sway the remaining undecided voters.
Michael Sean Winters
Sunday, October 19, 2008
Neither candidate proposes a flawless plan to correct the economy. Both plans take actions that would encourage the selling of stocks, causing the market prices to plummet even further. Clearly this would not be a desirable approach to the situation seeing as "the selling" is the reason behind the recent depreciation. But just as investors sell out of fear and desperation, they also will buy overpriced stocks in fear that they are missing out on the bottomed out economy, as we saw on Columbus Day, causing the market to climb almost as quickly as it was falling in prior days. The future president should have a plan that capitalizes on this human element of the stock market and encourages buyers to invest.
November 4th also proves to be the most important election day in the past several decades because the next president will control the most powerful federal government to date. After the recent events including the 700 billion dollar bailout, America looks more and more like a socialist republic. Our Founding Fathers warned against the government holding too much power and specifically set up the government to ensure that the people of the United States served as a system of checks and balances to the federal government. Now the next president will inherit a government with much more power than ever before, and we must hope that he will use that power responsibly.
Bobby Hausen, Regis High School
Friday, October 17, 2008
It is difficult to be too histrionic about the importance of getting elections right: They are the basis of our entire democracy. So, worry about having enough voting machines, voter fraud, and the like are important worries. At a time when all levels of government are tightening their belts, it is important not to skimp on the budget for a sufficient number of voting machines and staff to process the expected large turnout.
There is one reform that we should enact that costs nothing. Election Day should be a federal holiday. If people working two jobs see a two hour wait at the polls, they are not going to be able to vote. Students with a full course load and a part-time job don’t have time wait in the long lines we witnessed in college towns like Columbus, Ohio last year. Making the day a holiday would make it easier for these historically under-represented voters to exercise their most basic right of citizenship.
In the small town where I grew up, voter fraud was never much of a problem. Everyone knew everyone else although in my case that was doubly true because my mother was the registrar of voters and, before her, my grandmother was the registrar of voters. But, in large, expanding precincts, it is difficult to know who might be trying to commit voter fraud. Whoever is elected on November 4, should make sure that some money is set aside to help protect the integrity of the franchise.
Elections matter and as we saw in Florida in 2000, we need to plan ahead because every vote really does count.
Michael Sean Winters
Thursday, October 16, 2008
What perked my ears, however, was Obama's assertion of the sacredness of sexuality. Sen. Obama's statement of this very Catholic truth stood out even more given the rather lackadaisical answer of Sen. McCain. McCain did little to address the moral aspect of abortion, saying that he opposed Roe v. Wade (a decision made when Obama wasn't even in college) and that Abortion should be decided by the states. Apart from repeated statements essentially saying, "Vote for me, I'm pro-life," McCain failed to make any coherent moral argument against abortion. It also didn't help that the Arizona senator scoffed at the notion of women's health. While it may be true that this phrase is often over-applied, it will not play well to mock the idea of protecting a woman's health. Indeed, as soon as McCain sneered at the phrase, the lines on CNN measuring undecided voters trended steeply downward. In contrast, Obama's claim about the sacredness of sexuality sent the meters through the roof. It was a well-crafted answer (likely created with the assistance of professor Doug Kmiec), and it was music to the ears of this young liberal Catholic.
I had the honor of serving as co-president of my public university's Catholic ministry last year. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and affirmed my hope in the future of this church. In between a multitude of Sunday masses, meatless dinners, and movie nights, I'd like to think that that I developed a sense of appreciation for my friends' moral and political beliefs. It's safe to say that, while the Catholic students at my school consider abortion to be an urgent moral issue, it is by no means the sole issue on which they will base their vote next month. They will look at the whole spectrum of the candidates' positions, including abortion, the environment, foreign policy, and the economy (stupid).
Obama's answer to the abortion question will in all likelihood not sway those who will base their vote primarily on the issue of abortion. However, I believe his answer will qualm the fears of many voters who would like to vote for the Land of Lincolner in spite of his views on abortion. Especially in the midst of the current financial crisis, it's safe to say that most Catholics will be voting with their pocketbooks and look for the candidate who offers the best hope for recovery in this time of turmoil. Nonetheless, Barack Obama's nuanced answer on abortion should provide hope to Catholic Democrats seeking a candidate with more nuanced views on abortion than in previous election cycles.
Many Americans rely on buses, light rail, and subways as their only means of transportation. It is the way they get to their jobs, their houses of worship, and their medical treatments. For these Americans, and for us all, access to transportation is a basic human necessity. If people who rely on mass transit cannot get to jobs, it hinders their ability to provide for themselves and their families.
The fact that the riders of mass transit are disproportionately working class Americans and low-income earners adds another dimension to this crucial issue. Roman Catholics have an obligation to advocate a preferential option for those who are poor. Therefore, supporting public transit as a viable alternative to automobiles promotes a form of economic justice.
To some extent, mass transit is also an issue of environmental stewardship. Making public transit a viable alternative to automobiles means reducing the total number of cars on the road generally, and the intense concentrated emissions produced during rush hour traffic, specifically. Utilizing mass transit, then is an environmentally conscious action.
Finally, mass transportation is a means of building solidarity. Riding it is an action by which people engage their neighborhood and their neighbors. Those who choose to ride the bus are supporting the well-being of those who cannot choose. Mass transit, then, serves as a public space from which a more united population develops.
Neither candidate has been particularly vocal on the issue of mass transit. As a candidate trying to transcend "issue" politics, Barack Obama is hesitant to be publicly vocal about issues affecting urban life, which to many voters still conjure up images of big city bosses and political machines. Still, the Obama campaign has released a white paper on what it plans to do with America's transportation system, which can be found here. The plan is very ambitious, and covers a wide range of transportation-related issues. It's very possible that if Obama gets elected, the current economic crisis would hamper his ability to invest in public transportation. However, infrastructure spending has historically been a feature of countercyclical deficit spending of the type espoused by FDR's brain trust. Thus, a Democratic congress may indeed increase spending on transit projects.
As a matter of comparison, the Brookings Institution released a chart comparing Obama's policies to McCain's in regards to transportation, which can be found here. The McCain campaign has been largely silent on the issue of mass transit, but given McCain's statements about cutting out "pork-barrel" programs (which mass transit is often referred to as by its detractors), it would not be presumptuous to say that McCain would be likely be support of reductions in federal funding for mass transit.
A system of public transportation is a moral issue that should be a voting issue, especially because many income-poor and working class citizens depend on it for their livelihood.
Barack Obama is lucky. His opponent John McCain gave his best performance in any of their three debates, and it wasn’t even the headline in this morning’s Washington Post. “Stocks Sink as Gloom Seizes Wall St.” read the banner headline at the top of the page. Below it, in letters several font sizes smaller: “A Hard-Hitting Final Round.”
To make matters worse, McCain’s best performance came after most people had already made up their minds, which changes the whole nature of debate-watching. Many formerly undecided voters were not making discriminating judgments about the candidates: They were rooting for their candidate. In the immediate post debate poll conducted by CNN, 58% of viewers said Obama won to a mere 31% who thought McCain had won. CBS polled only uncommitted voters, and they scored the debate for Obama by a margin of 52% to 22% for McCain and 25% scoring it a tie.
Obama was flat for the first thirty minutes of the debate, put on the defensive by McCain on the subject of taxes, an issue with surprising resonance for independent, undecided voters. Their discussion of the economy showed the differences in their plans and the differences in their temperaments, and it should have been an opportunity for Obama to hit a home run. He did not.
McCain chief problem was not his answers but his facial expressions, especially his forced smile. As Eve Fairbanks observed at TNR, his smile “makes him look like a pleased kid who managed to recite the right lines to the teacher, even though he didn't know what they meant – ‘Look, Mom, I did good!’” At other times, he seemed barely able to contain his disgust at being forced to compete with a first-term Senator whom he clearly has come to disdain. That happens in a campaign: Because the contest is a zero-sum game, and the choice is a binary one, it takes a great deal of moral awareness to keep from falling into a Manichean view of your opponent. Your opponent and his or her campaign stand in the way of your candidate’s dreams, for the nation and for themselves. The opponent is easily demonized.
Unless, of course, you are Barack Obama who seems incapable of demonizing anybody. His performance appeared flat to me and many other commentators, but others saw a calm presence in the middle of the twin storms of the last month of the campaign and the first month of an economic crisis. If people were looking for a candidate who would become a reassuring presence in the White House, their choice was easy.
So, the debates are done. The polls are likely to tighten as the undecided voters return to their usual voting patterns. Most of those who voted for Bush in 2004 but are undecided today will end up voting for McCain and Kerry’s supporters who haven’t made up their minds will break for Obama. But, the trend lines in the state polls are all with Obama. The wind is at his back. Napoleon would promote him.
Michael Sean Winters
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Michael Sean Winters
Here is the newest funny viral video: a MoveOn.com parody of a don't do drugs-type ad with young celebrities advising their friends about dealing with parents who want to vote McCain.One of the most interesting parts of the 2008 campaign has been the use of viral videos to draw attention and sway opinion. The phenomenon was not new to the 2008 campaign, but it definitely rose to a whole new level with "Yes We Can", which had millions of hits and seemed to capture, especially for a younger, web-savvy generation, the idealistic appeal of Obama. It's probably this video as much as his rallies that also led both Sen. Hillary Clinton and later Republicans to attack Obama as messianic and also rhetorically gifted without beng concrete. As always, the playbook is, take a guy's strengths and show they are weaknesses.
There have been great virals since then; just to name a few -- the Democratic Primary in 8 Minutes, 15 Seconds (a parody of an ad for the TV show "Lost"); the Mike Huckabee/Chuck Norris video, after which his campaign suddenly took off; Paris Hilton's Response to John McCain; Les Misbarack, which set a song from Les Miserables in the Obama campaign office; comedienne Sarah Silverman's foul-mouthed but funny "The Great Schlep", in which she calls on young Jews to go to Florida to convince their grandparents to vote Obama; Tina Fay's take on Sarah Palin; and most recently, the young adult video above.All these videos have two things in common -- they're funny; and they're all videos for the Obama campaign. As far as I have found, the closest McCain supporters have come to something similar is a variety of videos depicting Obama as a budding Stalinist leader to the song "All Hail the Messiah, Obama Obama", such as this one. Ironically, the song alone is so absurdly wonderful, in some versions it's not clear that it's not Obama supporters who have made it as a joke, rather than McCain backers who mean it as an attack.
With its celebrities waxing poetic and looking oh-so-serious the "Yes We Can" video is prime for parody, actually; but ironically, the only major alternate versions (John.He.Is and No You Can't) have come from Democrats taking aim at McCain.Really, the only time the Republican Party has hit the funny bone in the last two months intentionally was at the convention. Sarah Palin's comment about lipstick won her big points, and only reinforces the importance of humor on the campaign trail.
To me, it suggests a new playbook is in order. Don't waste your time and money taking down your opponent, especially if there's nothing really there. Rather, get a video camera and a clever script and say something funny.Jim McDermott, SJ
Obama proposed several distinct ideas in his plan and most of them were unobjectionable. He wants to give a tax credit to companies that hire new workers, the kind of incentive our tax code should always have contained. He proposed a three month moratorium on home foreclosures, to allow families a little more time to try and find a way to keep their homes. And, the best part of his proposal, if the least popular, is to give states and cities more revenue sharing so that they do not have to cut back on infrastructure projects. This makes mayors and governors happy but to the electorate at large it appears like a government funding shell game, so Obama gets credit for proposing a policy with no real political value but a great deal of economic value.
But one of his ideas is a real clunker. Obama proposes that people be allowed to remove a percentage of their 401(k)s and IRAs up to $10,000. without facing any penalties. This does, as he claims, provide a little flexibility. But, why would you propose anything that would encourage people to sell stocks? Inviting millions of Americans to enter a slumping stock market with the intent to sell will only exert more deflationary pressure on the stock market. Not only does this hurt the market as a whole, but the rest of the individual’s retirement account would be harmed as well. This is Ben & Jerry’s economics: It tastes great but it is not good for your health. Americans need to save more and spend less and any policy that encourages the opposite should be viewed with suspicion.
This proposal is especially disheartening because one of Obama’s biggest applause lines has been that he will not lie to the American people, that he will tell us what we need to hear not only what we want to hear. Indeed, in the very speech in which he outlined his new proposals he ventured as far as a candidate dare in recognizing that the spending patterns on Main Street were not much better than those on Wall Street. “Part of the reason this crisis occurred is that everyone was living beyond their means – from Wall Street to Washington to even some on Main Street,” Obama said. “CEOs got greedy. Politicians spent money they didn’t have. Lenders tricked people into buying home they couldn’t afford and some folks knew they couldn’t afford them and bought them anyway.”
Not to be outdone, John McCain has argued for a reduction in the capital gains tax cut. But, you only register a capital gain when you sell your stock, so this is also a proposal that encourages people to do the single worse thing they can do to stabilize the markets. Additionally, there is a Never-Neverland quality to McCain’s suggestion: in 2008, it doesn’t appear that very many people will have a capital gain to be taxed in the first place. On the other hand, McCain’s proposal to stop taxing unemployment benefits only makes sense. Why should the government track a payment out and a payment in?
I suppose it is ridiculous to expect more than common pandering in the final weeks of a campaign. Still, it is disheartening especially from these two men who promised better.
Michael Sean Winters
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
McCarthyism cast its most full and most pernicious shadow upon America in the 1950s. Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy made a career out of smearing honorable Americans by accusing them of communist sympathies. His targets included Gen. George Marshall, whom Harry Truman called “the greatest living American.” But, in the 1950s, with the Red Army in control of more than half of Europe, the 1949 fall of China to the communist forces of Mao-Zedong, and the Korean War, Americans were afraid. McCarthy stoked the fear to beat political opponents, questioning not their strategy for combating communism but implying they were unpatriotic traitors. Many otherwise decent Americans had their reputations trashed before McCarthy was censured by his fellow senators and his name became synonymous with witch-hunter.
In 1988, Lee Atwater, the chief political strategist for George H. W. Bush, introduced America to Willie Horton. A convicted criminal who was let out on a weekend furlough for good behavior in prison, Horton went on a criminal rampage, kidnapping a family and raping a woman. This happened on the watch of Gov. Mike Dukakis, Bush’s opponent in that election. It did not matter that the federal government and most states had nearly identical programs: The image of a black man raping a white woman was searing and helped erase Dukakis’s lead in the polls.
The Willie Horton ad was slimy. In the late 1990s, before he died prematurely from brain cancer, Atwater apologized to the American people for introducing racial hatred into politics in such a grotesque way. Still, Hortonism was not McCarthyism. Atwater questioned liberal attitudes towards crime, he did not question Dukakis’s patriotism.
In recent weeks, many were expecting the McCain campaign to unleash a Horton-style attack ad, something that would stoke racial fears and try to frighten white voters into voting against Obama. But, they did something worse. Since 9/11, terrorism has replaced communism as the external threat that most frightens Americans. When you say someone “pals around with terrorists” and you refer to Obama using his middle name “Hussein,” you are looking for a response in the electorate. Last week, a woman stood up at a McCain rally and said Obama was an Arab. McCain took the microphone and corrected the woman. But that woman had drawn the precise conclusion McCain’s campaign wanted her to draw: Obama is dangerous, he is not one of us, he is unpatriotic.
McCain is visibly uncomfortable in such situations. He knows that Obama is not dangerous and finally said so last Friday to another rally participant whose fears were extravagant. If Obama were that dangerous, if he really did “pal around with terrorists” it would be a matter for the Justice Department to investigate. McCain’s campaign, and its despicable allies in the media, was engaged in McCarthyism the past two weeks. It was, in the strictest sense of the word, a shame. The irony is that such gutter politics has not diminished Obama’s poll numbers one iota, it has only diminished McCain’s standing before history. The election is three weeks from today. McCain may not be able to win the election, but he can salvage his reputation.
People invoke the phrase "beneath contempt" far too casually. You need to save it for circumstances like this. Trafficking in the new McCarthyism, like trafficking in the old McCarthyism, is beneath contempt.
Michael Sean Winters
Monday, October 13, 2008
Friday, October 10, 2008
Aside from the intrusion of state legislative issues in the Mass, the introduction of voting instructions made us uneasy. As the Catholic parents of a daughter who is a lesbian, my husband and I are quite sensitized to this issue. We have struggled, and still struggle, to reconcile the teachings of our faith with the reality of our daughter's sexual orientation. So imagine our dismay when the homilist jokingly compared a union into which our daughter might one day enter to a "marriage of monkeys". He'd apparently seen a funny photo of monkeys dressed up in wedding finery, and felt that the prospect of gays marrying was just as ludicrous. The congregation was encouraged to have a laugh at the "monkeys'" expense.
What if there were certain teenagers in that congregation, wrestling with the difficult internal realization of a homosexual orientation, hearing those words? For these young people, the journey of self-discovery can turn to self-doubt and then to self-loathing. Our daughter believed throughout her high school years, mainly as a result of a Catholic youth group in which we insisted she participate, that she was broken, that God had made a mistake when forming her, and that she was actually unloved and unforgiven by her Creator and her Church. We were unaware of her lesbianism until she went away to college and came home for the first time. Over the years, as she has revealed the pain she lived through as she privately came to terms with who she was, we have felt that we let her down: first, by not recognizing her suffering, and second, by what we had inadvertently put her through at the well-meaning hands of church volunteers.
This was all brought home to us again by the bitter irony of today's Mass: the juxtaposition of the priest's dismissive and insensitive words, followed closely by the prayer of intercession that asked for something along the lines of those seeking a spiritual home to find one in this community. I wanted to ask, You mean, unless they are gay? Because if I were gay, I sure wouldn't be feeling very welcome in this community right about now.
Then we sang an offertory song about us being the eyes and hands of God. Can we really be that, and continue to denigrate our gay brothers and sisters? Do we participate in Christ's promise of the kingdom of heaven here and now when we bury our gay children in a secret hell? My husband and I were reminded of the time we went to Mass, shortly after our daughter had come out, and were asked to join in the seemingly untruthful song, "All are Welcome in this Place". It was a song I could not sing, because I was crying instead. Our daughter certainly feels no welcome in this place. We try to reassure her that she is always welcome in the Catholic Church, and that she stands always in the presence of a loving God, but homilies like this one discourage us.
We understand that the priest meant no personal hurt to us, that he was but following the party line of the Catholic bishops, but we still felt the more flippant of his words deserved a response. My husband wisely steered me away from confronting the priest on his own front steps in the heat of my incense. Instead, we wrote a letter to the priest. We also wrote to the pastor, so that he might be aware of what homilies were being preached in his parish. The marriage of monkeys is hardly a loving way to classify the sons and daughters of some fellow worshippers, and indeed, some of those worshippers themselves.
My husband and I have come to believe that, in the context of the state of California, Proposition 8 is a civil rights issue, rather than a sacramental issue, and thus is unjustly supported by the bishops. Which is our own attempt to live out Ezekiel's call to right an institutional wrong. As uncomfortable as we are in this position - alienating old friends and voting against pastoral guidelines - we believe that the Church needs its dissenters, as unlikely as they may be. We are not by nature confrontational people: we rarely even argue with each other. It is another divine irony that we are dissenters at all: we who have long been a couple who practiced Natural Family Planning because it was Church teaching, who supported every Church ministry and encyclical and fundraiser, who went to Mass faithfully every Sunday and brought up our daughters in the arms of Mother Church. People used to think we were really good Catholics. And we liked it that way. We liked being pillars of the community much more than we like being crazy voices in the wilderness.
But here we are, protesting, questioning, being accused of blasphemy and of malformed consciences. Here we are, defending the marriages of those considered monkeys. Here we are, timid and miserable, but witnessing in one small way to a God who is love.
But, the stars of the night were the students. Undergraduates always ask the best questions, the most honest questions and the most important questions. They wanted to know about the history of Catholic involvement in the New Deal. They wondered how a party that has made militarism the centerpiece of its foreign policy can so blithely invoke the “culture of life” about which Pope John Paul II spoke so powerfully but also so comprehensively, not limiting the phrase to abortion but condemning as well the de-humanizing aspects of contemporary capitalism. They wondered if the Democrats will live up to their promise to reduce the abortion rate.
No one asked any questions that suggested they were buying the slimy gutter politics of character assassination being peddled by the McCain camp. No one confused an Obama victory with the eschaton either: the Senator from Illinois may be a breathe of fresh air and if he wins his election will mark a happy end to an ugly chapter in America’s race relations, but it will not bring an end to injustice. The students wondered how the political generation of their parents had so long worshipped at the pagan altar of the free market.
The only really ridiculous question came from an older woman who wanted us to comment on how Obama “stole” the nomination from Hillary Clinton. I had heard that there were former Hillary supporters who just could not bring themselves to accept her loss, but I had never met one. It was a bit of a thrill, like going to the zoo and seeing the Giant Pandas. Alan and Amy jumped in to answer the question, making sure my Irish temper did not get the better of me.
The most important impression I had was the readiness of this young generation of scholars to take active roles in the direction of both their country and their Church. They want to get involved. They want their Catholicism to be alive and enlivening. They clearly see the Church as a protagonist in the culture, a source of enlightenment and intellectual ballast in a sometimes stormy intellectual climate. They see what a mess the country is in, from the crashing Dow to the on-going fiasco in Iraq, but they have not given up hope that our politics can do better and that starting November 5, it will.
Michael Sean Winters