At the dual risk of being a prig and a bore, let me begin with what the scholastics called the via remotionis (crudely: what something is not). I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Republican Party. In the Catholic ghetto where I grew up, I never laid eyes on a known Republican until I was in high school. And while I accept that, alas, man is by nature a political animal, I have always thought that you really have to be some kind of dumb to expect much of, identify with, or invest yourself wholly in any political party, including the Republicans.
Yet barring any political earthquakes between now and November, I will vote with no little enthusiasm for George W. Bush and a whole raft of other Republican candidates.
My enthusiasm, to continue just a little more in the same philosophical direction, is not primarily about Bush. His down-home Texas routine is more foreign to me than Kerry’s tony Swiss schooling (though I’ve grown to appreciate its prickly charm, especially given Kerry’s lumbering blandness). Like his father, Bush is a thoroughly decent person. But despite all efforts, he somehow seems unable to communicate deep moral passion, which I have no doubt he feels. Bush knows the words, but can’t carry the tune. By contrast, Tony Blair was eloquent, just short of Churchillian, in the run-up to the Iraq war. So, while I support and largely agree with Bush, I admit his manner can come across as brittle.
More seriously, the Bush administration seems to have faltered at what I expected would be its strong suit: steadiness and competence. Dick Cheney, media portraits aside, is one of the few real adults I have met in Washington, and a truly likable man. And there are other Bush advisers who have plenty of experience and know-how about Washington politics. Yet they-Karl Rove prominently among them, I believe-have sold off various parts of the conservative patrimony not for a mess of pottage, but for an empty pot. I do not know any other way to characterize their clumsy efforts to buy senior votes with drug benefits and Hispanic votes with virtual amnesty for illegals. This failed at both ends: they abandoned their own principles and got nothing in return. They did a bit better in finally getting rid of tariffs on foreign steel, but only after dithering back and forth in the hope of placating steel workers in Pennsylvania and other swing states.
And then there’s the war. My son-in-law is a Marine lieutenant in Fallujah and his e-mails to me (yes, this is our first instant e-mail war) express disgust with domestic media coverage of the Iraq conflict, which he thinks is going far better than most Americans realize. I hope this is right. But I cannot say that I think the administration has done a first-rate job in managing the postwar situation. I supported and still support the decision to go into Iraq. (A quick digression: if Bush “lied” about WMDs in Iraq, then Bill Clinton, John Kerry, Jacques Chirac, Gerhart Schroeder, Vladimir Putin, Hosni Mubarak, the King of Jordan, and various lesser lights did the same-you can look it up.) But it does not take much insight to see that the administration has occasionally let the tiller slip and has had to fumble to get a grip again. A Kerry administration would be far worse, disastrous in fact, but I expected more steadiness from this White House.
My own real enthusiasm in this election, I will confess, is that the Republicans are not Democrats, but not entirely. On the whole, I prefer the Republican approach to many problems. I don’t understand much about economics, for example, but so far as I can make out from the charts, the recent recession began toward the end of the Clinton administration, continued into the first year of Bush’s presidency, then took a deep dive with the stock market after 9/11. Since then, the White House has done a remarkable job in getting the economy back on track. The president will probably earn little credit for taking the bad hand he was dealt and playing the cards rather well, but his basic policies, such as tax cuts, are the right ones, I believe. Still, I would not make up my mind in this election on most economic questions. To judge by their recent presidential questionnaire, our bishops imply that the minimum wage, farm policy, low-cost housing, and other such issues are crucial. They are important, and other things being equal, might even be decisive in certain times and circumstances. But other things are not equal.
The major media outlets often say that the Republicans are hostage to a narrow “theological” minority on abortion, embryonic stem cells, gay marriage, and various other issues. But there are actually some diversity of opinion among Republicans and real debate at the level of national politics. My friend Leon Kass, who heads the president’s bioethics commission, for instance, has been wrongly characterized as a tool of Republican sectarians. Anyone who knows him and the commission’s work also knows that he thinks deeply and is far from dogmatic-too far for me, in some cases. If you want narrow dogma, how about the plight of a major political party in which being prolife disqualifies you from seeking national office because special interests forbid it? The shameful treatment of the late Bob Casey at the 1992 Democratic convention inaugurated an ideological chokehold on the party that keeps many of us, who might otherwise look at a Democratic candidate-occasionally, in theory, in fear and trembling-from ever doing so.
It has often been said that Catholics have no political home in America: the Republicans are hard-hearted toward the poor and the Democrats callous about innocent life. This is something of a political cartoon, but it expresses enough truth to make us reflect. I myself will not go to the mat for a stronger immigration policy or faith-based initiatives or No Child Left Behind. Mostly, I vote against abortion these days because I think that this one practice has coarsened our national life and deadened our finer human sentiments as nothing else in my lifetime. For me, an abortion society is the moral equivalent of a slave-holding society and maybe worse: at least slave masters did not kill over a million slaves every year.
So when all is said and done, I’ll vote Republican because President Bush, I believe, won’t appoint Supreme Court justices who will further entrench Roe v. Wade in our dear land. John Kerry could potentially nominate four proabortion justices, which would establish abortion through the lifetimes of my children and future grandchildren, and probably forever. The Democrats’ enslavement to special interests and consequent inability to run prolife candidates for high office is doing deep harm both to their own party and to the nation. And I cannot, in conscience, cooperate in the permanent corruption of our moral life-particularly at the hands of a professed Catholic.