on the Bubble in This Election
Every election tests our understanding
of who we are as a people, where we want to go and how we want
to get there. Catholics in particular will struggle at the ballot
box come November 5. There is no perfect candidate. In fact, "perfect"
doesn't exist this side of heaven.
Vote as a Bloc Anymore?
Catholics are a pivotal swing vote
in this election. Over the last 20 years, the candidate who appealed
to the largest proportion of Catholics has won the presidency.
Catholics constitute only about 25 percent of the population but
they are a third of the electorate, mainly because they vote in
heavier numbers than the general population. With their 25-30
million votes, Catholics are concentrated in 13 key states.
The Catholic vote is "the jump
ball of American politics," according to Ralph Reed, executive
director of the Christian Coalition. That conservative group tried to organize a Catholic
Alliance early this year, but got headed off by Bishop Anthony
M. Pilla of Cleveland, president of the National Conference of
Catholic Bishops. During the June meeting of the bishops, he emphasized
that the bishops would pursue a nonpartisan election-year agenda.
They would not shrink from entering the political arena, but as
teachers with the intention of neither advancing nor undermining
"the electoral fortunes of any individual or party."
Added Bishop Pilla, "Of course, we will cast our own votes
according to our moral principles and the Church's social
teaching, and we urge all Catholics to do the same."
Already by last November, the bishops
had spelled out the wide range of issues that should be taken
into account by responsible voters in this election. (The full
text of the U.S. Catholic Conference Administrative Board's
statement can be obtained by calling the bishops' publishing
office at 1-800-235-8722.)
The Pew Research Center for the People
and the Press issued a report on American churches and politics
in June. It reported, "There is an indication of a clear
ideological schism within the Catholic population," with
almost equal numbers of Catholics identifying themselves as Democrats,
Republicans and independents.
As Chicago Tribune analyst Timothy
J. McNulty put it, "Are Catholics more likely to share
the views of Pat Buchanan
or Ted Kennedy? Do they think more like Daniel Patrick Moynihan
or William J. Bennett? The answer is 'yes.' It is
exactly that range of opinion that perplexes and challenges Midwestern
Methodist Bob Dole and Southern Baptist Bill Clinton."
Larry J. Sabato, coauthor with Glenn
R. Simpson of Dirty Little Secrets: The Persistence of Corruption
in American Politics, spoke to the annual convention of the
Catholic Press Association last May. He said Catholics identify
"with the Democratic Party's heart" but align
with the Republican Party on social issues like abortion. They
feel tugged between the two as the traditional preference of Catholics
for the Democratic Party breaks down. In 1960, 80 percent of Catholics
voted for John F. Kennedy, who became the first Catholic president.
In 1964, 76 percent voted for Lyndon Johnson. By the time of the
1992 election, Clinton got 56 percent of the Catholic vote.
How will Catholics vote in this election?
Prior to the conventions, Clinton was leading Dole among Catholics
by two to one. How did this factor affect the party platforms?
Dole, who had spoken to the Catholic Press Association in May,
began during the Republican convention to soft-pedal his antiabortion
stance to attract another key voting group, pro-choice women;
he emphasized his record on values and moral vision; he pushed
specific Catholic buttons like charity tax credits, school vouchers
and $500-per-child tax credits. Coming off a Catholic backlash
to his veto of the
partial-birth abortion ban, Clinton chose to emphasize education
and promises of financial help for college, and to declare that
he intends to balance the federal budget but not at the expense
of Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment.
Nastiness or Dirty Tricks, Please
The conventions of both political parties
were kinder and gentler than in the past. During their respective
conventions, Clinton and Dole expressed respect for one another,
then of course went on to declare their differences--but
politely. Clinton insisted that he wanted this campaign to be
one of "ideas, not insults."
By Election Day we will know if the
candidates and the parties have managed to maintain the high moral
ground. Recent campaigns have been distinguished by their general
nastiness. According to Sabato's book, many incidents from
the 1994 congressional elections involved dirty tricks, like "pollsters"
in Maine calling to ask voters if their opinion of a Republican
nominee would change if they knew he had defaulted on student
loans (he hadn't) or "pollsters" in Alaska
falsely asserting that the Democratic candidate for governor supported
gay marriages and adoptions (he didn't). Such charges were
made so late in the campaign that the falsely accused had no opportunity
When he was in the United States last
year, Pope John Paul II praised democracy, but warned: "Democracy
needs wisdom. Democracy needs virtue if it is not to turn against
everything that it is meant to defend and encourage. Democracy
stands or falls with the truths and values which it embodies and
In this age when only 19 percent of
Americans think they can trust the government in Washington to
do what is right most of the time (in contrast to 76 percent of
Americans in 1964), the problem with democracy is that we sometimes
get the government we deserve. How we Catholics vote in this
election will be decisive in determining America's future.
So be active in the campaign, keep to the high ground and, above