Clinton’s Catholic Strategy

He came to explain his Bosnia policy to the nation on November 27th. But sitting in the glare of television lights, clutching his hands for dear life, the president interrupted his Oval Office address for a bit of campaigning. His target was the Catholic vote.

“A few weeks ago, I was privileged to spend some time with His Holiness Pope John Paul II when he came to America,” the president wistfully recalled. “At the end of our meeting, the pope looked at me and said, ‘I have lived through most of this century. I remember that it began with a war in Sarejevo. Mr. President, you must not let it end with a war in Sarejevo.'”

Invoking the name of the Holy Father, whose worldwide popularity and moral authority might give credence to an otherwise shaky Bosnia policy, was a masterful move by the president. The fact that American Catholics, particularly in the Midwest and Northeast, might be listening, made the invocation irresistible.

“This is an element of leadership—understanding leadership through symbols,” says Ann Lewis, director of communications for the Clinton reelection campaign. “[Mentioning the pope] was particularly for Catholics, with a mind for them, and of them.”

The Bosnia speech is only one example of the Clinton administration’s ongoing “Catholicization”: a systematic public relations strategy to make the president and his administration appear more, well, Catholic. Peppering speeches with things Catholic, making appearances with Catholic leaders, and engaging in enough Catholic symbolism to overshadow the Tridentine Rite, Bill Clinton seems determined to prove he is the most Catholic president ever. The question is: why? The answer could lie in the landscape of the pending presidential election.

Traditionally a Democratic mainstay, Catholics account for nearly 30 percent of all registered voters; what’s more, they heavily populate the battleground states of presidential contests: Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. “Besides California, Clinton will have to focus his efforts on the Northeast and the industrial Midwest if he wants to win,” according to William Prendergast, author of the upcoming book Catholics and the Republican Party, 1854-1992. “Catholics are very important in those regions.”

The reliable Catholic base seems to be crumbling for Democrats. Dwindling Catholic support for recent Democratic presidents bottomed out with Mr. Clinton’s paltry 41 percent showing in 1992. Then the unexpected happened. In 1994, for the first time, 54 percent of the Catholic vote swung in favor of Republican congressional candidates: voters who describe themselves as conservative (as opposed to liberal) by a two-to-one margin. Though much attention is paid to the predictably Republican, evangelical vote, it is the Catholic vote that has become the wild card of American politics.

“Everybody knows the Catholic vote is the one most up for grabs on either side,” insists Don Devine, a Republican consultant to the Dole campaign. Lacking the deep roots to ensure long-term Republican loyalty, even the experts are uncertain which way the Catholic vote will swing next. At this point Bill Clinton and his Republican competition are trying to decide just who those 30 million elusive Catholic voters are, and how best to appeal to them.

Here’s what they do know: Catholic voters tend not to be monolithic; rather, “they are conflicted,” says Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster and Clinton adviser.

“There is a strong populist, working-class, middle-class economic value which brings them to the Democratic Party; at the same time, a social-values concern that pulls them toward the Republicans.”

Catholic voting habits are similarly conflicted. “They are not necessarily voting on moral issues,” says Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster for the Dole campaign and a Catholic. “They vote their self-interest. They want to control taxes, spending, and crime, but they are still sensitive to stepping on the little guy.”

Bill Clinton is acutely aware of that Catholic “sensitivity.” Arguably no presidential candidate today has a better intuitive understanding of the “conflicted” Catholic mind and the means of influencing it. His Jesuit training at Georgetown (a bit of trivia the administration loves to revisit whenever Catholic issues arise) no doubt laid the groundwork for his understanding, but it did not prevent his administration from committing some of the most heretical blunders Catholic voters had ever seen.

When he took office in 1993 the National Catholic Reporter hailed Bill Clinton as the “most Catholic president since John F. Kennedy.” Within days of taking office, the statement appeared more parody than fact. Catholics were routinely given the back of the hand from the very beginning, particularly pro-life Catholics. His Oval Office chair was barely warm when Clinton fired off a series of executive orders ending the ban on fetal tissue research and allowing abortions at overseas military hospitals. Like salt in an open wound, he signed the orders on the very day of the annual pro-life march in Washington. He soon committed funds to international birth control programs that sanctioned abortion, increased access to federally funded abortions, and signed a law making it more difficult to picket abortion clinics. And though he reversed his campaign promises on everything from Haiti to tax increases, Clinton delivered on abortion. Many Catholics felt abandoned.

“I’m sorry if people felt abandoned,” Ann Lewis said during our recent interview. “There was no surprise there. And [the president] will continue to act on his policy that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.”

The president’s apathetic commitment to the “rarity” of abortion became a further point of contention with many pro-life Catholics, particularly the Catholic bishops. When the bishops began to voice their discontent with White House policy and rhetoric, they were answered with a sustained season of Catholic bashing.

“Look who’s fighting the pro-choice movement: a celibate, male-dominated church,” the provocative Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders pointed out. During the administration showdown with the Vatican at the UN Population Conference in Cairo, Faith Mitchell, a State Department official, threw her two cents in. “We suspect that [the pope’s opposition] has to do with the fact that the conference is really calling for a new role for women, calling for girls’ education and improving the status of women,” Mitchell said.

So intense was the rhetoric, Raymond Flynn, Clinton’s own ambassador to the Vatican, in a letter to the president said he was “embarrassed” by the “ugly, anti-Catholic bias… shown by prominent members of Congress and the administration.”

The anti-Catholic rhetoric of Clinton’s administration, his tax policies, and his tireless support of abortion led to a hemorrhage of Catholic voters from Clinton’s party in 1994. A hemorrhage Tony Fabrizio attributes to a basic misreading of Catholic voters. “They are not necessarily haters in politics. They get nervous about extremists.” Using the president’s record as evidence, Republicans successfully painted Bill Clinton and his party as “extremist”; enabling them to seize both houses of Congress and whetting their appetites for the White House victory to come.

But Clinton is now turning the tables on the Republicans with great success. His recent outreach to Catholics could spoil Republican presidential dreams and reclaim a house or two for his party in 1996. “Unfortunately in politics memories are not long,” laments Don Devine, “I take what he’s doing very seriously.”

The “Catholicization” of Bill Clinton is now in full swing. The wake-up call of a Republican majority has returned Clinton to the “New Democrat” of old; with a more pronounced Catholic edge. The exterior is simply a reflection of the forces moving beneath the surface.

There is an organized push these days within the White House to “reach Catholics symbolically and on the issues,” according to an unnamed White House source. Hillary Clinton has consulted privately with a panel of Catholics to discuss “themes and issues” that will resonate with Catholic voters. A network of White House staffers including Chief of Staff Leon Panetta; Melanne Verveer, the first lady’s deputy chief of staff; Alexis Herman who runs the White House Public Liaison Office, and John Hart in Governmental Affairs regularly consults the Clintons on Catholic matters. And though the administration is reluctant to discuss its strategy to win back the Catholic vote, a strategy is emerging. Just look at what they say and do.

“I don’t think there is a Catholic approach to this election,” the president declared to a group of eighteen Catholic journalists during a closed-door interview in September. What they may or may not have known is: they were part of the “Catholic approach.”

Twelve of the invited eighteen journalists were hand picked from areas of the country where the president is counting on strong Catholic support: the Midwest and the Northeast. The meeting was designed to “reach the men and women in the pews,” said organizers. With so much of the contact between Clinton and the Catholic Church held behind closed doors, Jim Castelli, a sometime Clinton consultant on the Catholic vote, suggested a meeting with members of the Catholic press. Always dazzling in this format, the president managed to “narrowly define areas of disagreement and build bridges of common cause,” according to Castelli. In the end, the President received a standing ovation, and despite mixed coverage, a strategy that could win Catholic votes.

To White House strategists, it is not any single issue, but rather, the “comfort” of Catholic voters with Bill Clinton that will garner their support. By “narrowly defining areas of disagreement” while engaging in any number of symbolic gestures, the president is certain he can score with Catholics voters.

“[The Clinton administration] understands that you can’t attract people if all you’ve got is symbols,” says Jim Castelli, “but the symbols will get you in the door, and then you can connect on other issues.”

Even the thorniest issue dividing Catholic voters and the president—abortion—is manageable using this technique. Though his abortion policy remains unchanged, his rhetoric and the photo ops tell a different story.

First came the symbolism. During the summer of last year Hillary Clinton helped Mother Teresa open a home in Northwest Washington for children awaiting adoption. Tenderly holding the petite nun’s hand, the first lady made a highly publicized entrance that landed her on the front page of papers all over the country. And though Hillary Clinton was not likely to sign up as a Missionary of Charity, she had found a point on which she and Mother Teresa could agree—or so it seemed.

When it came time to speak, Mother Teresa preached against the “tragedy of abortion.” The first lady did a commercial for adoption. By the time Hillary Clinton retreated to her limo, Catholics had the impression that she and the little saint from Calcutta had come a step closer to resolving their differences. In reality, no ground was given on abortion; Ms. Clinton just changed the subject. The picture (which may resurface in 1996) was in the bag.

Now it was the president’s turn to dodge the abortion controversy and “connect on other issues.” When quizzed during his meeting with the Catholic press about his abortion stance, he followed the first lady’s lead, and talked about adoption. “I think [adoption] has the potential to substantially reduce the abortion rate,” the president said. He went on to stress his commitment to “speeding up” the adoption process. This sort of double step, reinforced by saintly photo ops, is having an impact on Catholic voters.

Even Republican pollsters agree the strategy is working.

“Catholics are not as motivated by abortion as people would think. Some say outlaw it, but there is no consensus,” says Tony Fabrizio. “I don’t think Catholics will think he is pro-life, but he now looks like less of an extremist.”

To demonstrate his compatibility with Catholics, Clinton has given key policy addresses at Georgetown, traveled hundreds of miles to meet the pope, attended Mass around the country, scheduled regular meetings with high-ranking prelates, toured the Vatican, and even sent Hillary and Chelsea to visit Mother Teresa’s home in Calcutta. Still smarting from the fallout of the Vatican clash in Cairo, the administration was careful not to stage a repeat performance this past year at the Women’s Conference in Beijing. On the president’s orders, Vatican concerns were considered (though not always addressed) and direct conflict was avoided.

As the election draws nigh, the symbolism is intensifying. A highly placed political adviser to the president says his recent trip to Ireland was primarily designed to “boost Irish Catholic support in the Midwest.” And boost it did. Clinton was like a Catholic folk hero in Ireland, evoking memories of the first U.S. Catholic president, John F. Kennedy—which was probably the intention. He mentioned JFK five times in speeches before the Irish parliament and at College Green. To make sure the comparison stuck, Clinton planted a tree in a city park just as JFK had done 32 years before.

Consciously tailoring his language to the Catholic ear, the President’s called for a “renewal” in Ireland and the need to “forgive those who have sinned against us.” The “Catholicization” would not be complete without pointing up his Scotch-Irish ancestry and meeting with Sinn Fein president, Gerry Addams—both of which he did.

When Clinton appeared at an engineering factory in Belfast, a nine-year-old Catholic girl who lost her father to the bitter religious struggles in Ireland joined hands with a Protestant boy as a symbol of the new Irish unity. Soon, half of the peace process photo op made her way to our own shores. Catherine Hamill, the nine-year-old Catholic girl, and her family were invited to light the White House Christmas tree in December. As Kathy Lee Gifford belted out the fourth chorus of “Jingle Bells,” the president was lifting little Catherine high in the air. One wonders what ever became of the poor Protestant child… and if Catholic voters took any notice.

Having hit all the right symbolic notes with Catholics, the budget battle has allowed the president to reach them substantively. As an example, look to his Denver trip of last year. Flanked by delicate nuns at a Catholic hospital, the president railed against Republican Medicare cutbacks. Only the hard of heart could fail to be moved. It was a brilliant display of his ability to marry the Church social teaching he deeply supports with the symbolic gesture he has all but perfected. Catholics are watching, and they apparently like what they see.

“Clinton’s numbers are ticking up in recent months owing to the budget battle,” Tony Fabrizio says. “As he sets the agenda and appears more moderate he wins with Catholics.”

The most recent Times Mirror poll has the president’s approval rating among Catholics at 54 percent, a four-point jump from a month ago. When asked who they would like to see elected in 1996 only 36 percent of Catholic voters chose Bill Clinton; 33 percent chose an unspecified Republican candidate.

With polls in a state of flux, both parties insist that the Catholic vote is “with them” on the issues, but Republicans are at a natural disadvantage. Since the Catholic constituency is so new to the GOP, they are unsure what Catholic voters want, or how to properly court them. While Bill Clinton capitalizes on Catholic compassion, Republicans are dealing with Catholics as if they were evangelical Protestants.

“Clinton gives Catholics hundreds of symbolic things, while he winks to the left. And all we can do is call Ralph Reed (the director of the largely evangelical Christian Coalition),” says a prominent Republican strategist.

Haley Barbour, director of the Republican National Committee, has made the Catholic vote a high priority, devoting part of a recent retreat to the effort. And both the Dole and Gramm campaigns are now assembling a group of Catholic advisers. But Republicans concede the effort may be too little too late.

Symbolic bit by symbolic bit, the president may have already redeemed himself among Catholics. “Each event fills in the mosaic,” says Clinton adviser Jim Castelli. “And as the mosaic fills in Clinton is looking better and better to Catholics.”

There is a story that Clinton loves to tell of a time at Georgetown when a Jesuit professor invited him to study for the priesthood, mistaking him for a Catholic. Given his interest in theology and genuine concern for others, it was an honest mistake. Bill Clinton is hoping Catholic voters make the same mistake in 1996.


  • Raymond Arroyo

    A longtime fixture at EWTN and the biographer of Mother Angelica, Raymond Arroyo resides in Northern Virginia with his wife Rebecca and their three children. He is currently working on a mystery series and an original musical.

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