In early seventies, the Democratic Party made a fateful decision to
begin building a new coalition, as one commentator put it, of "young people, college-educated suburbanites, and feminists."
This might not have been a bad idea had the party not deliberately
stopped reaching out to many people of faith – Catholics in particular
– in the process.
The historical context of this decision isn’t insignificant. The
party’s support for the Civil Rights Movement had cost it the support
of many white Southern Democrats, and mounting backlash against
perceived cultural excesses of the 1960s exposed a deepening cultural
divide – a divide deepened further by showdowns over in vitro
fertilization, The Pill, and, of course, abortion rights. Democratic
strategists presumably believed that a smaller but more ideologically
homogeneous tent was the real ticket to success, and that socially
moderate Americans (formerly core partners in the New Deal coalition)
would be little more than monkey wrenches in the cogs of progress.
By 2004 it was clear just how poorly advised this 30-year-old
strategic shift was. It was then that so-called "values voters" helped
Republicans run the table, with John Kerry – the first Catholic
presidential nominee since JFK – losing members of his own church by 5
points. If you want to know why Kerry lost Ohio, look no farther than
the state’s large percentage of white working-class Catholics, who
voted against him by a margin of 55% to 44%.
President Obama owes his victory in part to many factors beyond his
control: a tanking economy, an unpopular Republican Party, an
opponent’s mind-bogglingly disastrous campaign, to name a few. But make
no mistake about it – without Obama’s ability to reach across
ideological lines and unite disparate groups behind common values, the
Republicans would surely have emerged victorious last November.
Proponents of the "small tent" strategy are livid now that the
common ground values which put Democrats back in the White House in the
first place are playing a vital role in the Obama government. Many feel
that those who harbor moral concerns about abortion don’t deserve a
role in helping to craft social policy. More extreme voices write off
the values of large swaths of the American public categorically,
calling people of faith backward-thinking, dismissing even moderate
pro-lifers as woman-haters or terrorists.
That these moderate voters also disdain the divisive tactics of the
religions right and are swayable on health care and clean energy is, to
the small-tenters, irrelevant. Because they don’t subscribe to the far
left’s "do what feels right" dogma, many average Americans aren’t even
allowed in the campground.
President Obama is now in Rome for an historic meeting with Pope
Benedict XVI, with whom he admittedly disagrees on some fundamental
moral concerns. Had their disagreements precluded such a encounter, the
fertile common ground that the pope and the president share on
progressive values like economic justice, concern for the earth, health
care for all, and workers’ rights would lie fallow. The pope’s sweeping
indictment of unregulated free market capitalism and support for a new
economic world order – issued earlier this week in the encyclical Caritas in Veritate – would have little relevance to U.S. public policy.
If the subject of abortion is broached at the meeting at all, it
will almost certainly not arise in the context of abortion rights
restrictions or public support for contraception. On these issues, both
men recognize the convictions of the other, and realize the overriding
importance of more positive productive conversation. Speaking with religion reporters last week, the president pointed to several possible ways to break the stalemate and find common ground on abortion:
On the idea of helping young people make smart choices so
that they are not engaging in casual sexual activity that can lead to
unwanted pregnancies, on the importance of adoption as a option, an
alternative to abortion, on caring for pregnant women so that it is
easier for them to support children, those are immediately three areas
where I would be surprised if we don’t have some pretty significant
areas of agreement.
Cynics on both extremes will see the president’s persistent support
for common ground as a political ploy intended to maintain popularity
among moderate voters. They’ll view today’s meeting at the Vatican as
little more than a photo op. But there’s another interpretation they
should pause to consider: that change doesn’t happen without the
support of the people, and the people won’t support change if it comes
packaged with hostility towards their beliefs. Mr. Obama made an
election night promise to be the president of all Americans. His
sincere and consistent efforts to speak – as well as to listen – to the
concerns of those who disagree is evidence that he is making good on
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