At the Polls: Flattering the Fish Eaters

All of a sudden, Catholics are in. As reported in these pages last month, the Clinton White House is knocking itself silly trying to look “Catholic”—frequent allusions to John F. Kennedy, a presidential visit to Ireland, a Hillary photo op with Mother Teresa, private briefings designed to flatter selected Catholic journalists, invocation of the pope in nationally televised speeches, that sort of thing.

There’s nothing personal in all this, of course. Catholics just happen to constitute something close to 30 percent of the populace, which happens to be located in states of critical electoral importance. That alone guarantees that a lot of time and attention is going to be spent wooing Catholics between now and November. To be sure, neither political party is shy about trying to manipulate the electorate, but Mr. Clinton’s courtship of Catholics is attended by, shall we say, certain inconveniences that do not affect most Republican candidates.

For openers, one would be hard-pressed to name an administration in recent memory that was more openly hostile to Catholic interests than this one. For the better part of three years, Clinton and Co. have gone out of their way to alienate prospective Catholic voters. The president had hardly taken his oath of office before he overturned the hard-won bans on federal funding for fetal research and abortions in overseas military hospitals. Whether these gestures were mere political payoffs to 1992 campaign supporters or genuine expressions of heartfelt sentiment, they were read as a gratuitous insult to Catholics. Mr. Clinton’s action surprised no one except in its contemptuous daring. The underlying policies had been the standard Democratic Party position for years; he was simply the first president in twelve years to execute it. And we have no reason to doubt that but for Republican opposition in Congress, he would have done a great deal more along the same lines.

This circumstance seems not to bother certain Catholic political apparatchiks in and around the bishops’ conference and the national Democratic Party, who remain wedded to a sentimentalized and by now quite unrealistic understanding of the major parties today. This misunderstanding derives from the long association between Catholics and the Democrats, which reached its apogee with the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 but has been going more or less steadily downhill ever since. Once upon a time, the big-city Democratic machines were the instrument through which millions of Catholic immigrants became active participants in American political and cultural life. The Republicans, by contrast, came to be associated in the public mind with big business and with the attitudes of Protestant boosterism. With the suburbanization of the American landscape in the post-World War II era, however, many Catholics moved up the socioeconomic ladder and, with that movement, gradually began to discover that Republicans didn’t have horns. Richard Nixon was the first Republican to understand and encourage this shift, and Ronald Reagan brought the Catholic vote to the Republican banner in unprecedented numbers. George Bush rode Reagan’s coattails in 1988 but lost the Catholic vote in 1992 through his own lassitude and a group of advisers who were irredeemably tone deaf to all things Catholic.

The Catholic vote is clearly up for grabs in 1996. The Democrats will make every effort to invoke warm and fuzzy images from the past and disingenuous messages about the present. If the truth be told, they have little else to go on. In the 1970s the party of Al Smith got itself transmogrified into the party of George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis. Jimmy Carter won in 1976 largely because of the Nixon pardon, and Bill Clinton won in 1992 thanks to Ross Perot. In neither case did victory have much, if anything, to do with the formal policy of the Democratic Party, which in important particulars remains steadfastly inimical to almost everything near and dear to Catholic moral teaching. It is pro-gay rights, pro-abortion, and in most other respects inexhaustibly nourished by the cultural revolution of the sixties. The electoral wizards can manipulate the symbols all they want, but barring some dramatic and unlikely change of policy on Clinton’s part, the Catholic vote can be brought once again to the Republican banner—provided the GOP doesn’t take the Catholic vote for granted as it did in 1992. Catholics must be reminded that the election matters to them as Catholics and not merely as taxpayers or as members of hyphenated ethnic groups. That means Republicans must carry the fight to the opposition on selected issues of moral importance.

A good place for them to start is with the partial-birth abortion bill now pending in Congress. The nation will soon know how sincere Mr. Clinton is when he says that he wants to make abortion a “rare” occurrence.


  • Michael M. Uhlmann

    Michael Martin Uhlmann (1939-2019) served as professor of government in the department of politics and policy at Claremont Graduate University and Claremont McKenna College. Prior to teaching at Claremont, Dr. Uhlmann was a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Vice President for Public Policy Research at the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and taught at the George Mason University Law School.

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