Lifewatch: Casey, We Hardly Knew Ye

A wise maxim teaches, with a sly turn, that “anything worth doing is worth doing . . . badly.” That maxim was borne out, all too amply — and all too sadly — by Gov. Robert Casey, in his late presidential campaign, which was celebrated, staffed, funded, buoyant — and short.

I reviewed in this space last month some of the attendant perils for the pro-life movement in a campaign by Casey in the Democratic primaries. But I mentioned also the vast good brought by a Casey campaign, even among the Republicans. And while the withdrawal of Casey would foreclose some of the dangers posed by his candidacy, it seems clear, even to pro-lifers hesitant to throw in with him, that his withdrawal was an unalloyed disaster.

Let us count the ways. Within the Republican party, there have been pro- lifers working strenuously to restore speech to the mute — to induce Phil Gramm or Bob Dole to speak again on the problem of abortion. People like Gary Bauer, of the Family Research Council, have been speaking out for several years now, trying to resist the tendency on the part of the Country Club Republicans to push the issues of moral consequence to the periphery of our politics, or even to remove them altogether from our public life.

Spokesmen for the pro-life cause have had the most abrasive, unsatisfying meetings with Gramm, which have now been widely reported. It became evident at the same time that the problem was not, in the case of Gramm, an impediment of speech, but a want of conviction. (And this I would have to say of the man who had been my own preference among the candidates.) Veteran pro-life leaders became willing then to alert their followers across the country to a looming crisis: After an alliance of fifteen years with the Republican party, they were warning that it might become necessary to leave the party. What made the threat both plausible and real was the emergence of Casey as a serious candidate. For even without the prodding of pro-life leaders, many pro-life voters were likely to be drawn out of the Republican primaries to vote for Casey. And if Casey failed to wrest the Democratic nomination from Clinton, the disaffected pro-lifers could offer the base for a separate candidacy, in a third or fourth party. It could not succeed of course in winning, but it could prevent the Republicans from winning — and deliver the most stunning retribution to a party that would turn its back on about 40 per cent of its voters.

But with the withdrawal of Casey, that leverage has disappeared overnight from the hands of the pro-life Republicans. Happily, they are not without resources, in numbers or imagination. Yet, their political moxie will have to be put now to its severest test. Gramm and Dole no doubt calculate that the pro-lifers have nowhere else to go, and without Casey as a lever, it may be that much harder to induce these candidates to take any risks with their pro-choice supporters by doing anything as audacious as stirring a discussion of abortion. Still, Gramm and Dole may be moved to reach out again to their pro-life followers. But the incentive to make that move may have to be generated on the outside, by the demands welling up from the Republican voters. The surveys among Republicans are already sending ominous signals to Gramm: He has fallen to third place, behind Pat Buchanan, in the preferences for a presidential candidate, and his descent seems to be related, directly and precisely, to his decision to turn away from the “social issues.”

In the case of the Democrats, the presence of a serious candidate in Casey was enough to spook the Clinton people. And it created possibilities for the most salutary mischief. This was, after all, not a Governor from Dogpatch U.S.A., but a governor elected twice, resoundingly, from the fifth largest State in the Union. There was no way that he could be less than a formidable threat in a party that rather now wishes that its sitting President would seek some other outlet for his arts. It is not beyond imagining that Casey could draw upon this disaffection. At that moment the Democratic establishment would face the nightmare of its party being taken over by a traditional, anti-abortion Democrat, and to adapt a line of Churchill’s, that is a prospect “up with which [they] will not put.” They may press Clinton then to “do an LBJ” — to take himself out of the race for the good of the party, and do it in enough time that Al Gore could be put forth in his place. The longer Clinton waits, the longer Al Gore will have to hold back in a decorous reserve. But that in turn may prevent Gore from getting his name on the ballots in the primaries. Richard Gephardt, sensing all of this, has positioned himself to jump into the Democratic primaries. For he may estimate, rightly, that the party would be ready to accept any plausible alternative if there is a danger that Casey could win. And that danger would be in place on the day Casey entered the race.

Hence, the very presence of Casey, as a “live” candidate, made him that immanent danger in the Democratic party, and a catalyst for all manner of wondrous churnings. All of that was lost when Casey took himself out, and what is all the more the cause of deep wincing is that these rich, provocative effects did not require a campaign run at frenzied levels, with a candidate out shaking hands at the factory gates at 6 a.m. It was reported that Gov. Casey did not wish to run a campaign with anything less than the vigor that characterized his campaigns in the past. But even Casey did not quite understand that this campaign did not have to resemble his other campaigns. The candidacy would have achieved its pronounced, major effects as long as Casey was simply there — commanding interviews on “60 Minutes” and the national news, giving an occasional, important speech at Democratic dinners or the National Press Club. If people wished to speculate about his energy or his health — well, let them speculate. The Clinton entourage would have been no less spooked, and the rest of the party would have been no less moved to search for an alternative to Clinton. Casey himself might not feel quite right about doing it this way, and it might not have met his own, personal standards of what a “Casey campaign” looked like in its true character. But didn’t this campaign claim a significance that ran beyond our “personal” satisfactions? Was there not a cause here that could have justified a campaign slightly different from the campaigns we have come to know in the recent past?

Of course, there is no quibbling over the matter of Casey’s health. No one would have the right to second- guess him on the estimate of how much a campaign would strain his endurance and shorten his life.

We can be grateful for everything Bob Casey has done for the pro-life cause, and readily record our understanding if he judged, finally, that he could not take on this exertion. But the Casey candidacy offered a cause that ran beyond personal interests, and many accomplished people, respecting the claims of that cause, gave up their personal interests, compromised their standing in the Republican party, and even abandoned their jobs in order to attach themselves to this cause. Those people merited the courtesy, at least, of being consulted, even if there would have been a delay of a day or two in Casey’s withdrawal. For one thing, they might have offered advice on a different way of preserving the campaign — and its rich possibilities — at a lower level of energy, for several weeks. That delay might have bought time to assess Casey’s health, or it might have produced a different plan for deploying the resources of the campaign even after Casey withdrew.

People who know Bob Casey well insist that he could never have done it this way — he could never have asked people, earnestly, for money and support if he were not earnestly running for President. And yet, at the end of April came this announcement from Gov. Casey: He would form a political action committee, a “think tank,” and a lobbying group, all to advance the cause but without a Casey candidacy. “There is no cessation in the game plan,” he was reported as saying. “It’s going to be executed exactly as before, except instead of being a candidate, I’m going to be pushing all three buttons.”

But a candid friend may reply: If Casey has the energy to do all of these things, then his sage advisers could have shown him how to preserve his campaign with no more than the same energy and visibility. On the other hand, Casey is sufficiently anchored in the world to appreciate this point: another PAC and research institute will not draw any special attention from the press if they are not seen as the annex to a Casey presidential campaign. He cannot, it seems to me, have it both ways. If he declares himself out, he is out, and so too are his institutes, filled as they are with the promise of good works.

Still, what could one say of Robert Casey except “God bless him”? And what else could one hope but that he continues to enliven our politics with his conviction? But the story has become far too familiar among the pro-lifers: We are not hampered by a deficit of conviction, and we may be willing to do just about anything for the cause — except perhaps to take an extended moment to work out the design of a strategy and to summon our deepest levels of artfulness.


  • Hadley Arkes

    Hadley P. Arkes (born 1940) is an American political scientist and the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1966.

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