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subject: AANEWS for October 9, 2000

In dispute over RU-486, Bush working to woo Catholic vote. Republicans mobilizing special Catholic task force

In AANews, #831
9 October 2000

It used to be that political candidates cited remarks from Washington and Lincoln. In the year 2000 election campaign, though, major party hopefuls have instead been quoting scripture and verse from holy books like the Bible, or even the Torah. One candidate -- Texas Gov. George W. Bush -- revealed that the greatest philosophical force in his life was Jesus Christ.

Now, Bush is quoting another favorite writer and religious figure, Pope John Paul II. The pontiff's slogan about a "culture of life" is now part of the Republican candidate's effort to woo an important block of voters in next month's election, the Roman Catholics.

In his Tuesday night debate with Vice President Al Gore, Bush said that if elected he would discourage abortion and use the White House to promote a "culture of life." It was, as the Boston Globe points out in today's edition, a phrase quite familiar to churchgoing Roman Catholics who hear those words echoed in church sermons on a regular basis.

Bush's facility with the phrase demonstrates the continued blurring between the political podium and the pulpit.

"Culture of Life" was introduced by Pope John Paul II in a 1995 encyclical titled "Evangelium Vitae," or "The Gospel of Life." The pontiff remarked, "In our present social context, marked by a dramatic struggle between the culture of life and the culture of death, there is need to develop a deep critical sense capable of discerning true values and authentic needs." The phrase came to refer to a hodgepodge of Catholic social teachings, which the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago said was "the seamless garment" of life. It spelled out the position of Catholic leaders on issues like abortion, capital punishment, assisted suicide and even concern for the poor.

That peculiar mix of issues renders Roman Catholics, particularly in America, what political scientists and election pundits call a "cross-pressured" group, one pulled to both ends of the ideological spectrum. Some of those Catholic teachings resonate with political liberals who see common cause on social concerns and opposition to the death penalty. The abortion issue, though, locates these same Roman Catholics on the right; and like many Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists, the Catholics oppose physician assisted suicide, and remain relatively opposed to gay marriage and homosexual rights.

Complicating the picture even more is the fact that Catholics, once an immigrant block identified with the working class, have prospered in the American marketplace. The Roman Catholic vote was firmly entrenched in the Democratic party in the middle of the 19th century; that relation became even closer when the party nominated Catholics like Al Smith in 1928 and John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Prosperity and other factors, though, moved Catholics voters into the Republican camp beginning with Richard Nixon. They provided important support in 1968 and 1972, and did the same for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. They joined the "New Democrat" bandwagon under Bill Clinton, and they may do the same for Al Gore in 2000.

The Bush camp, though, is seeking to capitalize on what some have perceived as a decline in Democratic Party allegiance among U.S. Roman Catholics. After the 1996 election, the Republican National Committee established a special Catholic Task Force headed by Philadelphia advertising executive Brian P. Tierney. Bush's brand of "compassionate conservatism" is aimed, in part, at Roman Catholic voters who, hope GOP strategists, will identify with the party stand on social issues, including abortion.

The stakes are high, especially since Catholics voters comprise 20 to 30 percent of the electorate in key states Bush needs to win. They include Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Missouri.

"When George W. Bush speaks about the abortion issue, he does so in authentically Catholic terms," an anonymous campaign advisor to the Texas governor told the Boston Globe. "He has embraced a very Catholic notion of the ethic of life on which abortion is just part of a whole that includes issues like euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide."

Bush is also a big proponent of school vouchers, which could be a financial windfall for the nation's vast Roman Catholic Parochial school system. The Republican presidential nominee is vulnerable, though, on an issue which many Catholics feel strongly about -- capital punishment. Bush is a veritable "Governor Death," presiding over a penal system in Texas which leads the nation in executions and, say critics, has unjustly convicted innocent men and women.

Abortion Politics and RU-486

Abortion has been a front burner political issue since 1973 when the Supreme Court upheld a woman's right to choose in the ROE v. WADE decision. It has been a political litmus test in many electoral races, and led to spirited -- and even violent -- confrontations outside abortion and family planning clinics. Doctors and personnel working in such facilities have been murdered or injured, and for many it is a "make or break" issue which defines how people react to a particular candidate. While both Bush and Al Gore have amalgamated religious rhetoric and programs into their respective campaigns, their stands on abortion offer a striking contrast.

Gore had repeatedly said that he supports the ROE v. WADE decision. During the Tuesday televised debate between the vice president and Mr. Bush, Bush was asked by moderator Jim Lehrer if he would try to overturn the Supreme Court ruling and the federal Food and Drug Administration's recent approval of RU-486, an abortion-inducing drug. Bush responded that he was "disappointed" with the FDA decision, but said that as President he might not have the authority to undo the ruling. Bush has pledge that he would select only judicial nominees to the Supreme Court, though, who would reverse the ROE v. WADE ruling.

Bush mutes his rhetoric when discussing abortion, but as his close friend televangelist Pat Robertson observes, the Texas governor is "profoundly pro-life." Appropriating language from Pope John Paul and Cardinal Bernardin, Bush told his television audience, "Surely this nation can come together to promote the value of life. Surely we can fight off these laws that will encourage doctors or allow doctors to take the lives of our seniors. Surely we can work together to create a culture of life so some of these youngsters who feel like they can take a neighbor's life with a gun will understand that that's not the way America is meant to be... And surely we can find common group to reduce the number of abortions in America."

It was also a political strategy of linkage and "triangulation" -- incorporating some of your opponent's issues into your own platform -- so masterfully executed by Bill Clinton.

"Bush didn't want to come across as having a very strict right-to-life position, because that would potentially alienate some voters," observed Dr. John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron. He described Bush's debate strategy and spin on abortion as "a conscious effort to reach out to Catholics ... who respect the church's teaching and don't find abortion very appealing."

Green added, "It's quite a clever strategy, if he can carry it off."

For further information:
(Archive of articles on the year 2000 election)

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