With the election approaching, we asked seven prominent lay Catholics to reflect on George Bush and Bill Clinton, with special attention to issues dear to the hearts of Catholics.
Michael Schwartz is the director of the Center for Social Policy at the Free Congress Foundation. Jim Castelli is a journalist, pollster, and author (with George Gallup) of several studies on the Catholic vote. Mary Ellen Bork is president of the Thomas More Society. Helen Hull Hitchcock is the founder of Women for Faith and Family, a pro-family organization. Robert Spaeth is professor of liberal studies at St. John’s University in Minnesota. Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the Eagle Forum, led the successful fight for the retention of the pro-life plank in the Republican platform. Joseph Sobran is a syndicated columnist and contributing writer for National Review.
What have been the greatest successes and failures of the Bush presidency?
Michael Schwartz: Bush has had two successes. First, he has kept his promise to pro-lifers. His seven vetoes on life issues have been sustained. Second, after much coaxing over the past three years and three months, he has come to the conclusion that school choice is right.
His failure has been breaking his promise not to raise taxes, and that has seriously damaged his credibility. The Bush administration has failed to chart a decisive course on domestic policy. Federal spending under Bush has increased more than under any administration, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson. This is not what we bargained for.
To the many who praise his foreign policy, I’d say that Lithuania was far more worthy of defending than Kuwait. And look at Yugoslavia. Bush has failed to carry out sustained efforts to take advantage of the events in Eastern Europe.
Jim Castelli: At the risk of sounding partisan, I’d be hard pressed to point to any successes.
The Republicans are right that the Gulf War was a success—that war itself was fought by Colin Powell and the troops. Everything that happened before the war, the events that led to the invasion of Kuwait, and what happened after the war—the follow-up—Bush handled abysmally. The war was a success in that it was fought well, but it was a war that should not have happened at all.
The great failure of the Bush presidency has been the domestic agenda. He just doesn’t get it: the state of the economy and the state of peoples’ fear. While he probably was right in saying that the recession is not as devastating as some would say, he doesn’t understand the psychology of the voters.
Mary Ellen Bork: His successes have been in education, but he should have pushed his proposals long ago. The Gulf War was a success, though questions can be raised on that as well. He did what he said he’d do, but we’re still dealing with that problem now. He needs to be more decisive on foreign policy, to have a rationale for deciding which regional conflicts we should be involved in. He’s ambiguous on that.
The greatest failure has been that he did not keep his campaign promise on taxes. People have a lack of confidence in him now.
At times Bush seems unenthusiastic in his stance for life. He needs to be more wholeheartedly committed and more articulate about his stance.
Helen Hitchcock: Bush’s greatest success has been his continued commitment to his campaign promises and the Republican platform regarding life. Bush has consistently supported the moral point of view on this issue. Despite considerable pressure even within the party, his commitment has been steadfast. One of his weaknesses, though perhaps not a failure, is that he has not adequately convinced the people of his commitment. Though, to his credit, he has been consistent in his stance, he has failed to be a real moral leader.
Robert Spaeth: His greatest success has been the Gulf War. In particular, aside from the successful outcome, the U.S. has worked with the United Nations in moving forward policies that opposed the aggression of Saddam Hussein. The use of the U.N. was important and is increasingly important, as we see in regard to Yugoslavia. The U.N. can do what it was meant to do, that is, practice “collective security.”
His failure has to do with the economy. I understand the great disparity between a largely Democratic Congress and the president. In such cases, a president has to be better, and will have to compromise with the opposition.
Today the people believe that the president runs everything, but the Constitution does not allow for that. Because of the symbolic status of the president, in his own eyes and in the eyes of the voters, making promises has become routine. Therefore, the fact that there is an impasse on economic matters, that the recession continues, will be counted as a failure.
Phyllis Schlafly: The greatest success of the Bush presidency has been the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.
The greatest failure, the greatest disaster of his presidency, has been the tax increase.
Joseph Sobran: I don’t think in terms of successes and failures. Rather, Bush’s general approach has not been good. As a rule, Bush accepts the precedents of the opposition. On abortion, this weakens his position even when he is defending it. In general, Bush has been a sorry specimen.
Unlike most conservatives, I regard the Gulf War as an evil rather than an achievement.
Conservatives need to stop playing the opposition’s game and instead begin repealing liberal programs. Conservatives have been following the futile strategy of supporting the Republicans in hopes of staving off Democratic gains, instead of undoing the damage they’ve already done.
Does Bush deserve to be elected, in view of the available alternative?
Joseph Sobran: I don’t think the presidency is a matter of one’s deserving it. It’s hard to say who would be a better choice. They’re both so undeserving. As Dr. Johnson said, “There’s no seeing the point of precedence between a louse and a flea.” This election is like choosing between a crook and a corrupt cop. You don’t know who’s going to do more damage. As Howard Phillips put it, we have a liberal Republican in the White House, and we have two liberal parties in Congress because the Republicans will be loyal to the president. If Clinton were to win, at least Republicans would act as opposition.
The first rule in politics is that you have to punish a traitor. Conservatives have to punish Bush for his betrayal on taxes. All we asked for is that he not raise taxes, and Bush stated clearly that he would not raise them. In a case like that, you have to make him pay the price.
Bush cynically thought the conservatives had no where else to go but to him. That’s not the case.
Robert Spaeth: Bush does not deserve to be re-elected. I prefer Clinton because he is more likely to get along with Congress, and domestic issues can be tackled.
In foreign policy, Clinton is similar to Bush on the proper use of force. I know he doesn’t have the experience that Bush has, but he has the right attitude and character.
The abortion issue is a tough one. I have ambivalent feelings about abortion. Though I think its reprehensible, I have never been a “pro-lifer.” To forbid abortions by law is such an enormous imposition on some people. If Bush is extreme in one way, and Clinton is extreme in the other way, I wouldn’t like either position. Still, I’d vote for Clinton.
Jim Castelli: I don’t think Bush does deserve to be re-elected. The people and the party are pleading for some plan, but the president simply doesn’t know what to do. I have a block when I try to envision a second term for George Bush. As a Catholic, I feel that a second Bush term will be like perpetual limbo. He’d be a lame duck from day one, and everyone would have their eyes on 1996. If he does win, the odds are that with a Democratic Congress, things won’t change. Bush simply doesn’t have a plan, except to cut the capital gains tax.
Michael Schwartz: The key to this question is “in light of the alternative.” We do not know what to expect from another Bush term. But we do know what to expect from Clinton.
Mary Ellen Bork: As a Catholic, the life issue is very important to me. Bush is the only alternative for Catholics. Of the choices, Bush is the only one I could consider, especially because of the issues of education and life. Of course, with a Democratic Congress it’s hard for him to work on those issues, but he is fighting for them.
Helen Hitchcock: Given the available alternative? There is no alternative.
Phyllis Schlafly: Yes, I am very much for Bush. He has been very faithful to his pro-life stance. And we do not want Hillary Clinton in the White House!
For those who need more reasons, I would point out that trial lawyers are fully behind Clinton; that’s a legitimate reason not to vote for him.
What is your assessment of the Catholic vote, specifically those “Reagan Democrats” who have provided the Republican margin of victory in recent presidential elections?
Joseph Sobran: The Democrats have been contemptuous of Catholics consistently, except for the Cuomo types who are defectors. On abortion, gay rights, private school options and more, the Democrats have said to the Catholics “We don’t need you.”
I wouldn’t rule Bush out. The Catholic vote should be thought of, and Clinton, smart as he is, has completely written it off. On issues where Catholics have taken a stand, Clinton consistently takes the “other stand.” Clinton is a very smart guy, but he has a certain blindness. That’s a big one.
I expect Bush to get the majority of the Catholic vote—those that are serious Catholics, that is, but I’m not sure. Bush has been playing down abortion. I mean, consider his appointment of David Souter to the Supreme Court. It is a disaster—Souter has a vested interest in supporting Roe v. Wade—and the Bush people don’t really care.
This is typical of Republicans: they’re lacking in principle. If there’s no rollback of the damage already done, if there’s merely containment, it’s a no-win game.
For the Democrats, its like playing the Brezhnev game: What we have we keep; what we don’t have, we pursue. The Democratic game is parallel to that of the host/parasite. The pronoun “we” rhetorically unifies the host and parasite. There are two groups, the taxers and the taxed. The Democrats are the taxers, living off of our money.
The Republicans have been very foggy on this issue. If they would only be clear on it, they would be the majority party. What are they doing?
I was once a Democrat, when the Democrats kissed babies instead of aborting babies. The Democrats are so intent on restructuring the family, of “redefining” family. We must repeal their gains.
I’m more concerned about Bill Clinton than about his wife. At least she makes clear where she stands. Bill has been running for president forever; the stories of his days at Georgetown are well known.
This brings to mind a joke about the devil making a deal with a lawyer: The devil appears before a lawyer, and the lawyer asks, “What do you want?”
The devil tells him that he’s prepared to make a deal. “I’ll give you $100 million if you sign over to me your soul, your children’s souls, and your children’s children’s souls.”
The lawyer’s response? “So, what’s the catch?” That is Bill Clinton.
Michael Schwartz: Any Republican who can get the majority of the Catholic vote is assured of getting a healthy majority of the northern industrial states, from Minnesota to Massachusetts. This is a swing vote, and it is formidable. Any national candidate in a two-way race is assured of 40 percent of the popular vote. The remaining 20 percent will decide the outcome. Ten percent of that vote are Catholics. They constitute the largest swing vote; they’re not loyal to either party. Because the swing vote in those northern industrial states is strong, if it does not move decisively in either way, the vote will be close. If that’s the case, the result will be decided elsewhere.
The Bush people are doing a good job at addressing the issues important to that vote. Bush can stand tall on issues of school choice and abortion. Clinton and his people have basically said, “No Catholics Need Apply.” With their embrace of anti-Catholic stances on gay-rights and abortion, plus their insults to Governor Casey of Pennsylvania, the Catholic vote will be damaging to them.
Phyllis Schlafly: The “Reagan Democrats” were slipping away under Bush. But, with the platform set, Bush’s commitment to life and family values, combined with the Democratic platform, Bush will keep those “Reagan Democrat” voters.
Clinton is really just Michael Dukakis with a Southern accent. The accent may go down smoother, but his wife comes across as a complete feminist. People don’t like that.
Robert Spaeth: In Minnesota, we have many extreme pro-lifers who will vote for Bush. But as for the mainstream voters, many Catholics will move to Clinton.
Both candidates tend toward the middle as compared to previous elections. Clinton doesn’t have the knee-jerk left-wing image of other Democrats. Whether that image is true of him or not, Catholics will be less afraid of him, with the exception of those who vote just on the abortion issue. The election outcome will reflect that reality.
Jim Castelli: Looking at the last election, Catholics were practically split down the middle. I cannot believe that Bush is not going to do worse than that because of economic issues. After all, consider past elections: In 1976 we had a Republican president, the economy was bad, and he was thrown out. In 1980, with a poor economy, we threw a Democrat out. In 1984, the economy was in good shape, and we kept Reagan in. In 1988, the economy was also good, and we kept the party in. Now it’s 1992, and the economy is once again bad. In short, Bush is making great claims about his role in world peace, but he hasn’t a clue on prosperity.
As for the Catholic vote, in 1968 Humphrey received 59 percent of that vote, and in 1976 Carter received 57 percent. I think Clinton may top that.
The term “Reagan Democrats” is misleading. With Reagan, his personality counted a lot for the Catholic vote. And the economy was good. Bush hasn’t got the personality edge, and moreover the economy is bad.
Clinton is offering what the Democrats haven’t in recent elections because he is reaching out to those Democrats who may have been so called “Reagan Democrats.” People are liking Clinton more than they did months ago, while there is a clear dislike for Bush.
Ultimately, the election will come down to the fact that people are fed up and willing to try someone new. Certainly, so far in this campaign Clinton has made a credible performance.
Mary Ellen Bork: This may sound simplistic, but if voters analyze the issues, the “Reagan Democrats” will stay with Bush. But if they just react in an emotional way, if they don’t think about what’s involved, they may go to Clinton. Clinton is clever, and he’s very articulate. But I think he’s cloaking his real agenda. Clinton’s judicial appointees would be disastrous.
Helen Hitchcock: The “Reagan Democrats” will be watching very carefully. There have been disturbing signs of irresolution on the part of some Republicans. Even though there was a very vigorous fight to retain a commitment to moral issues, for which Bush deserves credit, there have been signs that the Republicans would capitulate to the other side.
People are concerned because many voters in past elections who are Democrats have been mugged by their party. If the choice between Bush and Clinton were not clear, the Republican party could lose those votes. But the choice is clear, and so long as it remains that way, we will see it played out in the election.