"We can't know for sure what's going to happen."
So a good friend reminded me, referring to the next four years.
In retrospect, it was the most cogent and objectively true observation I had heard all last week as I went back and forth with colleagues attempting to get my head around what the election of Barack Obama means for contemporary America.
On that question -- and its corollary, where do conservatives go from here? -- the pundits could not agree.
Bill Whittle, on-air Los Angeles commentator, recalling how Union soldiers in October of 1864 turned what looked like a Confederate victory into a Union one under the leadership of Major General Philip Sheridan at the Battle of Cedar Creek, saw it this way:
On Tuesday [November 4- election day], the Left - armed with the most attractive, eloquent, young, hip, and charismatic candidate I have seen with my adult eyes, a candidate shielded by a media so overtly that it can never be such a shield again, who appeared after eight years of a historically unpopular President, in the midst of two undefended wars and at the time of the worst financial crisis since the Depression and whose praises were sung by every movie, television, and musical icon without pause or challenge for 20 months . . . who ran against the oldest nominee in the country's history, against a campaign rent with internal disarray and determined not to attack in the one area where attack could have succeeded, and who was out-spent no less than seven-to-one in a cycle where not a single debate question was unfavorable to his opponent - that perfect storm of opportunity . . . yielded a result of 53 percent.
His point: the conservative movement just needs effective leadership. We can -- as Sheridan appears to have uttered, facing heavy odds at Cedar Creek -- "lick these people out of their boots!"
Now, I was just starting to wax optimistic and embrace Whittle's calm buoyancy when another friend emailed me Quin Hillyer's piece in the American Spectator:
Conservatives may not realize just how difficult it might be to recover from this week's elections. The day after the big defeat, the conservative chatter everywhere was about how the "movement" and the Republican Party (two different things) could finally unshackle themselves from the bad old habits that brought them down, and about how the ability to draw a sharp contrast with the Obama/Pelosi/Reid triumvirate would allow us to focus attention, rally the faithful, and re-storm the castle in 2010 and 2012.
Too many conservatives think we've seen all this before -- in 1964 and 1974 and 1992 -- and that we know how to handle it. Fly, meet ointment: We're not dealing with the same sorts of opponents. These New Alinskyites who are taking over the White House, combined with the most leftist congressional leadership in memory, will not let us play by the same rules under which conservatives recovered from those earlier debacles. They will try to drastically tilt the playing field, seed our side of the field with land mines and, in short, rig the process to make it next to impossible for the political right, or Republicans, to recover. And they are likely to succeed in at least some of these designs.
Oh, well. The pieces kind of cancelled each other out.
Reminding myself that punditry has its limits, however, I then turned to a fruitful exchange of thoughts with several friends whose experience and wisdom I knew first hand. As a consequence of that dialogue, here -- for what it's worth -- allow me to share a variety of thoughts on the matters now facing us.
What did the vote mean?
I am convinced that the election of Mr. Obama meant first and foremost that a majority of Americans voted to reject the party of the current administration. No landslide for Mr. Obama. No 'lurch to the left'. No popular mandate for every ultra-liberal cause. The economy was the primary undoing of McCain-Palin.
So do traditional values still remain politically viable? I believe so. I believe the cultural-moral landscape remains about what it was on November 3rd. Are a majority of Americans still at heart "values voters"? I am inclined to think so.
Even so, while we have not suffered a lurch to the left, I fear that we are nevertheless in a gradual, slow slide further and further left toward the kind of secularized, socialized, liberal republic that has been on display for decades in places like France and Spain. Can the slow slide be stopped? On that, I am not optimistic.
On most counts, 52% of Catholics voted for the man who will is poised to become -- if he follows through on promises he has made to abortion advocates -- the most pro-abortion President in American history. What does that mean? It means a lot of Catholics disagree on the extent to which the abortion issue still constitutes the fundamental peace and justice issue of our times. In my opinion it also means that a lot of Catholics are deeply confused about morality in general and about the nature of conscience vs. the nature of (mere) moral opinion vs. the nature of prudential judgments and how those are to be properly arrived at. It means I adamantly disagree with the kind of prudential judgment that led many very intelligent, thoughtful and well-meaning Catholics to vote as they did.
Many of those Catholics were Hispanic Catholics. As a friend pointed out to me, this population constitutes half the battle for the culture of life in the next twenty years. Will Hispanic immigrants become integrated citizens or largely remain the subjects of a benevolent host country? Will they remain the pawns of secularized liberal culture or will they bring their moral and religious convictions to bear on issues which transcend their immediate sphere of interest? The Catholic Church's Hispanic ministry may well make all the difference here.
The Republican Party, the Conservative movement, and Sarah Palin
Hopefully the debut of new leadership in the party (Sarah Palin, Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal, Michael Steele) will mark the death knell of an 'old boy' Republican machine that is too often feckless on the life issues (to not say opposed to the party's pro-life planks) and disastrously self-absorbed.
Sarah Palin has already proven she can break through machine Republicanism. Only time will tell, however, if she can break another barrier, an uglier one, that of Conservative elitism. It's a stain on the party which became painfully apparent during the final days of the election. I am not saying that every conservative who openly questioned Mrs. Palin's qualifications was an elitist; but I can only conclude that for many, an un-confessed reason for rejecting Sarah Palin -- if not the primary reason -- was that Sarah Palin was cut from different cloth: Sam's Club conservative cloth; not country-club conservative cloth, or inside-the-beltway conservative cloth which too often exudes a not so subtle snobbery. Sarah Palin was simply too much to stomach for many conservatives of this ilk.
Now, if Mrs. Palin is to become a contender for the highest office in the land come four or eight years from now, she will not have to demonstrate a command of political philosophy. She will have to show us, however, that she has understood and embraced core conservative principles and that she is bound to be consistent with those principles. 'Field-dressing a donkey', hockey-moms, lipstick on a Pit-bull, and "can't wait to get in there 'n serve ya" is all wonderfully spontaneous and genuine. But we need assurance that beneath the spontaneity there lays depth of reflection and deep reserves of prudence.
Some conservatives would be wont to suggest a reading list for Mrs. Palin, a list that begins with Tocqueville and The Federalist. For all we know, she is already familiar with these. If not, her taking the time to study up will be all well and good, but study is not going to make Sarah Palin more principled or increase her store of political prudence and sound judgment. If I were a betting man, I would say Mrs. Palin is already well stocked up on the latter.
The Democratic Party
As for the Dems, could the next four years open the way to welcoming pro-life democrats back into the fold? I would love to think so, but I can't help being skeptical. As the friend of at least a couple avowed pro-life democrats, I can only hope that they, and all pro-life Dems, will work in earnest with their pro-abortion colleagues to assure that pro-life concerns get their proverbial day in court within the Democratic National Committee.
If, furthermore, pro-life Dems can now follow through on their promise and work to ensure -- as many assured throughout the campaign -- that Mr. Obama will in fact work to "improve the economic and social conditions facing mothers in poverty" thus dramatically reducing the incidence of abortions, by all means, please go right ahead.
Mr. Obama vis-a-vis the Culture of Life
As for Mr. Obama, he is our president elect. He will be the commander and chief, and -- to use an old-sounding, but largely still true expression -- leader of the free world. As such, we must respect him, pray for him, and to the extent possible collaborate with him and his administration for the common good.
But as a friend of mine wisely ponders: which Obama will we get? A presidential race is not the best forum in which to assess the personality of a candidate -- no matter how much we are forced to try and do precisely that. Of both candidates, it is true, we saw several sides, several personae. So, which Mr. Obama will lead us? Or as former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum recently asked, will Mr. Obama lead or be led? If he truly leads, will he be a strong leader or a weak one? Will he be a man of principle, or a man of polls? Will he set his own agenda, or will his agenda be set by every ultra liberal cause in the land? Will he have the ability to make critical decisions under the inevitable national security crises he is bound to face? Time will tell.
On the culture of life front, the United States Catholic bishops have already made it clear that an Obama administration will face a fierce opponent as it enacts policies that endanger unborn human life, or threatens to erode conscience clause and other protections currently enjoyed in Catholic healthcare institutions and other settings. If Mr. Obama is reasonable, he will quickly move to the center on these issues. He will wisely avoid roiling pro-life Americans, and side step radical FOCA legislation. He will be in for a fight if he does not; and it will be Mr. Obama and his secularist administration -- not pro-life Americans -- who will be guilty of rendering further asunder the moral fabric of our culture and the ties which make us all Americans.
I hope Mr. Obama will in fact hear the voices -- as stated in his victory speech -- of those whose votes he did not earn on November 4. I want to believe that in our President-elect, we actually do have a man who is principled, and who listens to the voice of reason. Again, time will tell because we, indeed, cannot know for sure what will happen as he begins his presidency. For his part, however, Mr. Obama can be sure that we will be watching -- praying for him no doubt -- but ready to put on public display the unreasonableness of every putatively "reasonable" liberal assault on our culture.
Father Thomas Berg is a priest in the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie).