Friday, November 28, 2008

A Slice of Humble Pie

Having waited a few weeks for the shame and humiliation to pass, I hereby take this opportunity to remove myself forever from the game of political forecasting. McCain beat Obama!? What was I drinking!?

At the time that I predicted the presidential contest was Sen. John McCain’s to lose, I was confident of a couple of things that, in retrospect, were little more than fantasies. Sure, Barack Obama’s choice of Sen. Joe Biden could have easily backfired because of the latter’s unpredictable tendency to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. And McCain’s choice of Gov. Sarah Palin gave us a national sweetheart for the balance of the contest; it would have been pure brilliance, had McCain been ten years younger and with a few less bouts with cancer under his belt.

However, I must admit I didn’t expect the economy to tank like it has in the last couple of months. The crisis in the auto industry has been building for some time. Job losses and collapsing housing markets have forced lenders to restrict the loans they write precisely at the time they need to generate new loans. The only positive is that gas prices are lower than they’ve been since 2005, which will help relieve the overall cost of energy. Rightly or wrongly, the American public blames an economic crisis on the administration in power, expects near-miraculous results from anything the President does about it, and gets angry when such miracles fail to manifest.

Abraham Lincoln once said, about replacing George McClellan, “Anybody may work for you, but I must have somebody.” Dubya and the GOP held on (barely) to the government in ’04 because, despite the ill will his maladministration had already built up, the country wasn’t ready to replace him with “anybody”. John Kerry, whatever his other virtues may be, never did or said anything dramatic enough to convince the uncommitted that he was anything more than a compromise the Democrats settled on because they couldn’t get Billary. Even now, I think that, had neither Hillary nor Obama run this year, we would now be waiting for McCain to take office.

I don’t wish to take away anything from Obama’s natural charisma or the effectiveness of his grass-roots campaign. However, I must still say that some of the near-messianic fervor of his supporters comes from the fact that the American public is sick and tired of George W. Bush and the yes-persons who have been caving in to him the last seven and three-quarter years. McCain, for all his attempts to parlay his unconventional Republicanism into a “maverick” image, simply couldn’t put enough distance between himself and the rest of the Washington Republicans without leaving the GOP altogether. Where Kerry was “anybody”, Obama was definitely “somebody”. The swing voters had finally found a candidate they could feel good about voting for in order to vote against another four years of Republican control.

Remember how I said, “Catholics will simply no longer vote pro-choice Catholics into office, even if they’re willing to vote for pro-choice non-Catholics”? That seemingly only works when the Catholic is the presidential candidate, not the vice-presidential tagalong. The bishops may have made abortion a non-negotiable issue; however, as I should have remembered when I was displaying my over-confidence, Catholics aren’t mindless sheep held in intellectual thrall by their clerical masters. Catholics, like everyone else it turns out, only worry about the morality of abortion when they’re not worried about whether they’ll have an income or a place to live in a year’s time.

Also, sometime in the last couple of years, the Democrats finally realized that their no-compromise insistence on the priority of “choice” was squeezing out the Catholic vote. The new codeword for accommodating pro-life voters is “big tent”. Obama signed off on a change to the pro-Roe plank affirming supporting programs to reduce unintended pregnancies and boosting support for women and families who choose to have children. This means, of course, that Planned Parenthood will still continue to thrive on federal funds, and the Democrats will still try to solve teen pregnancies by passing out condoms in middle schools. Nevertheless, it sounds like they’re starting to realize that Americans in general are becoming more uneasy with the abortion option.

As a result, Catholics provided a large swing in Obama’s favor, choosing him by nine percent over McCain. By contrast, Dubya only won Catholics by five percent. A rough calculation ([0.09 ÷ 2] + 0.5 = 0.545; 0.545 × 0.2 = 0.109) tells us that Catholics provided about 11% of Obama’s final tally, more than covering the margin of victory (7%) in the popular vote. Moreover, every major state Obama carried for the electoral vote has a high percentage of Catholics, especially California, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, Florida and Ohio. While it would be going far to say that the Catholic vote sealed the deal—political cleavages aren’t as clearly defined as dress cleavages—certainly they were an important component in Obama’s victory.

Okay, mea culpa. I should have realized that the hysteria surrounding Obama’s campaign—the political equivalent of the Beatles coming to America—meant his election as soon as it was clear that he’d beaten Hillary Clinton, which in itself was an upset victory rivaling Harry Truman’s thumping of Tom Dewey. The man has the same charismatic quality that Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan radiated, the kind that put John Kennedy over in a bout that favored the incumbent VP, Richard Nixon. Had Dubya’s administration been as relatively harmless as his father’s, Obama probably would still have beaten McCain … just not by as much.

Many of the things I said about the possible rise of a Catholic counterculture are true, I still maintain. The problem was that I spoke of it as if it had already grown to adulthood when in fact it hasn’t started grade school yet. A lot still remains to be done for the Church in America to recover from the damage wrought by liberal Catholics (and facilitated by weak-kneed bishops) in the wake of Humanae Vitae, especially the predator-priest scandals of 2002. The most important of the conditions for the revival is one I didn’t mention, but seems to be the case: the need for the bishops to remember that they’re supposed to be successors to the apostles … a job which requires a spine.

This is not to say, though, that abortion can’t or won’t become a hot topic during Obama’s next term. Melinda Henneberger reminds us that Obama has promised to sign the Freedom of Choice Act “the second it hits his desk”. While most insiders and talking heads doubt that FOCA could make it as far as a final vote, both versions of the bill are written in such sweeping language that even commonsense restrictions (age of consent, health regulation, zoning, etc.) would be imperiled. Moreover, the language can be interpreted to overwhelm the federal regulations and freedom-of-conscience laws in 46 states which allow Catholic hospitals and health-care providers to opt out of providing abortions. Even pro-choice legislators are nervous about FOCA’s potential for disaster.

I’d like to say, “It’ll never happen. Or else, it’ll be watered down to mean little more than direct federal funding for Planned Parenthood.” But I’ve just spent the last twelve hundred words telling you that my political foresight can’t be counted on.

I can tell you what I hope, though. The media is not only treating Obama like the Second Coming but making jokes about the media treating him like the Second Coming. I hope Obama doesn’t take the hype seriously. I hope he realizes that he owes an assist to George Bush, who did more to undermine McCain’s campaign just by being himself than a pack of Bidens could have done in two years. I hope he made that statement in the comfortable knowledge that there was no chance of the bill landing on his desk anytime in the next four years. I hope that all the pious “big tent” talk wasn’t just that … talk to salve Catholic consciences for voting Democrat. I hope that the increase of pro-life Democrats in Congress helps FOCA to die of neglect.

Our Lord, in his sermon on the lilies of the valley, reminds us that the present day has enough troubles without our needing to borrow tomorrow’s problems as well. With that thought, I cease worrying about the fate of the pro-life movement until something tangible comes to threaten it. Instead, I wait for the institution of the forty-fourth President of the United States of America … who hails from the state of the Great Emancipator.