For pro-life Democrats, Hillary Clinton’s was not the only “unity” speech last night. When pro-life Sen. Bob Casey Jr. mounted the podium that had been denied to his father in 1992, the Democrats were, in effect, putting out the welcome mat for the many Catholics who agree with the Democrats on most other issues but who have felt ignored, or worse, by the party’s pro-choice stridency of recent years.
Catholics are now the quintessential swing voters. So it was unsurprising that Barack Obama chose a Catholic running mate in Joe Biden. Catholics overwhelmingly backed Hillary Clinton in the primaries: In Pennsylvania, where Biden was born, Clinton won 70 percent of the Catholic vote. Surrogates are not always effective: Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey Jr., a pro-life Democrat who campaigned for Obama in Pennsylvania, could not dissuade his fellow Catholics or constituents from voting for Hillary Clinton, after all. But the Biden selection is another piece of evidence that Obama is repositioning the Democratic Party on abortion—and that may help bring Catholic swing voters back to the Democrats in 2008.
The Democratic Party is not about to abandon its pro-choice stance. But most Catholic swing voters aren’t looking for the Democrats to denounce Roe v. Wade: They, too, are ambivalent about abortion, believing it should be, in Bill Clinton’s phrase, “safe, legal, and rare.” According to a Pew Center poll released last week, while 21 percent of Catholics think abortion should be illegal in all cases, 26 percent think it should only be illegal in most cases and another 33 percent believe it should be legal in most cases. But despite his words, President Clinton did not create any policies that would make abortion rarer, and his veto of the partial-birth abortion ban convinced most Catholics he was not seriously conflicted about abortion the way they are.
The trend among Catholic Democrats is not toward a doctrinaire pro-life or pro-choice position but instead toward what could be called “pro-choices,” plural. They defend the legality of Roe, but they want to make sure that programs are in place to help women make the choice to carry the child to term, such as adequate and affordable pre- and postnatal care and a less-cumbersome adoption system. They also favor programs to reduce the need for abortions in the first place through better age-appropriate sex education and family-planning services. These proposals were part of a legislative effort to reduce the number of abortions led by Democrats in Congress, including pro-life Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio and pro-choice Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut.
Barack Obama has warmed to this approach, altering the abortion plank in the Democratic Party platform. After affirming the party’s unequivocal commitment to Roe, the platform asserts: “We also recognize that such health care and education help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and thereby also reduce the need for abortions. The Democratic Party also strongly supports a woman’s decision to have a child by ensuring access to and availability of programs for pre and post natal health care, parenting skills, income support, and caring adoption programs.” This language does not please some hard-core pro-choice activists because it implies a stigmatization of abortion, but it is difficult to portray oneself as championing women’s reproductive freedom if you oppose such measures.
In addition to the platform change, Sen. Obama made a hugely symbolic push for a big-tent approach to abortion by having Sen. Casey address the convention. In 1992, the senator’s father, who was then the governor of Pennsylvania, was prevented from addressing the convention because of his pro-life views. This was a huge slap in the face to pro-life Catholics, who saw it as a sign that they were not welcome no matter how much they agreed with the party on other issues. When the governor’s son ran for the Senate in 2006, Catholic Democrats across Pennsylvania were ecstatic. “Finally, a Democrat we can vote for,” was a common refrain. Casey trounced incumbent Sen. Rick Santorum by 20 points.
Last night, Casey began his address, “I am honored to stand before you tonight as Gov. Casey’s son”—a pointed reference to his father’s previous banishment. Casey mentioned his “honest disagreement” with Obama on the subject of abortion, and he deftly pointed to this disagreement as indicative of Obama’s style. “He will pursue the common good by seeking the common ground,” said Casey in words that could be drawn from any text on Catholic social thought. Some may object that Casey’s speech is merely symbolic, but Catholics never consider symbols to be mere.
The selection of Joe Biden is the third piece of evidence. Biden is pro-choice but not rigidly so. He supported the ban on partial-birth abortion and as recently as 2003 had only a 36 percent rating from NARAL, the pro-choice lobbying group. A press release from NARAL praised the Biden selection but also noted that his record was “mixed.” But more important than any particular vote, Biden never tries to weasel out of his conundrum. “Look, I’m a practicing Catholic, and it is the biggest dilemma for me in terms of comporting my religious and cultural views with my political responsibility,” he said on Meet the Press in 2007. In short, he embodies precisely the ambivalence that many centrist Catholics feel on the issue.
Catholics for whom abortion is the only issue are never going to vote for pro-choice Democrats. Many others, however, are less certain about both abortion and their party loyalties. For them, an extreme pro-choice posture, such as that seen in banning Casey Sr. from the convention podium in 1992, served as an insuperable barrier to listening to the party on other issues. But as the Democrats begin to show that there really is a difference between being pro-choice and pro-abortion, and that they want to focus on reducing the number of abortions, the party will have crossed a threshold for these voters. They might get a broader hearing on issues such as health care and the war in Iraq.
White Catholics in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana could decide this election (and, to a lesser degree, Latino Catholics in Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico). It will take more than an affinity for one of their own to bring them to support the Obama-Biden ticket. In 2004, if John Kerry had garnered as many Catholics in Ohio as Al Gore did in 2000, he would have won the state and the presidency. Catholics want more than one of their own. They want to feel welcome within the Democratic fold again. If Biden gives voice to his own wrestling with the abortion issue, and Obama and the Democrats continue to take pains to show they are serious about reducing the number of abortions, many centrist Catholics will give them a hearing.
With abortion off the table, Obama and Biden can focus swing voters on the social Darwinism that the GOP currently peddles as economic policy and the chest-beating militarism that masquerades as a foreign policy. In the Gospels, Jesus asks, “Who would give his son a stone when he asks for bread?” On abortion, the Democrats have stopped offering stones. On everything else, stones are all the GOP has to offer.