I am writing this unsolicited memo to help the Obama campaign understand the Catholic vote. It has been the practice of Democratic presidential candidates, including former Vice President Al Gore and Sen. John Kerry, to enlist the help of well-known Catholic dissenters as advisers to their campaigns (no need to name names). As a result, the Democratic presidential candidates have failed to understand Catholic voters, much less connect with them.
Your "Catholic" advisers have told you that Catholics are unhappy with their Church -- that they like the popes (both John Paul II and Benedict XVI) personally but reject their emphasis on protecting unborn life, marriage, and the traditional teaching on sexuality. They have told you that Catholics have lost respect for the "moral authority" of their bishops since the priest sex scandals and are ripe to be wooed by a message of "choice."
These advisers are wrong, and the election results of 2000 and 2004 are proof of it. In the last two presidential elections, President Bush regained 15 percent of the Catholic vote Senator Dole lost to President Clinton in 1996.
I don't want Senator Obama to win -- our political positions are too far apart -- but I do want both political parties to understand the Catholic voter. I would like to see the Obama campaign reach out to Catholic voters knowing who they really are, rather than who the dissenting advisers say they are.
Perhaps this will force the campaign to rethink its fundamental policy positions. I have doubts that this can happen, but your strategy has been to tout Senator Obama's "openness," so I offer these thoughts in that spirit.
No matter what your Catholic advisers tell you, the Obama candidacy begins with the disadvantage of being pro-abortion, weak on the defense of marriage, and surrounded by pro-abortion Catholics like Sen. and Mrs. Ted Kennedy. This constellation of negatives will lose you the Catholic vote if it is not addressed directly.
Remember that active Catholic voters attend Mass regularly, adhere to Church teaching, and vote based on convictions formed by their religious practice. Messages about the minimum wage will not trump the non-negotiable life issues with these voters.
Your greatest asset, apart from the attractiveness of your candidate, is the support of former Congressman Tim Roemer, who is Catholic, pro-life, and well-respected. You should give Roemer as much visibility in the media as possible, and keep him away from public associations with the pro-abortion Catholic wing of the Democratic Party.
The campaign should seek to find some area of common ground with pro-life, pro-family, socially conservative Catholic voters. The tired critique of pro-lifers as "single issue" voters, not caring about children "after they are born," has never worked before and won't work now. The candidate must show respect for the pro-life movement rather than criticize it for narrow-mindedness or, even worse, a lack of compassion.
Catholic voters care about social-justice issues, and they care about the plight of the illegal immigrant. It's important, however, that the candidate recognize the contribution of church-related institutions to these causes and encourage them, rather than oversell the government's ability to solve every social problem. The candidate should understand the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which promotes addressing social problems locally before they are addressed regionally or nationally.
Can the candidate re-affirm the faith-based initiative? That would be an excellent idea.
The candidate should avoid speaking in Catholic parishes and other Catholic institutions. Such appearances will stir protests, and perhaps official sanctions, against a Catholic institution hosting a pro-abortion political candidate. The bishops themselves are on record, along with the Vatican, stating that Catholic platforms should not be given to pro-abortion candidates.
The campaign should study closely the Kerry campaign and the long list of mistakes it made in seeking the Catholic vote. It is especially dangerous to recruit pro-abortion Catholic members of Congress to claim that Senator Obama is "more Catholic" than Senator McCain, in spite of Obama's being pro-abortion. That will backfire -- Catholics know that not all political issues are equal.
Senator McCain's consistent opposition to abortion gives him a natural advantage with the Catholic voter. Rather than ignore that fact, as your dissenting advisers will tell you, it should be acknowledged.
Realize that Catholic figures like law professor Doug Kmiec may offer some voters cover for supporting Senator Obama, but the candidate would have gotten those votes anyway. In the big picture, the negative response to Kmiec's endorsement underscores the contrast between socially conservative Catholics and Senator Obama's record. Roemer helps; Kmiec does not.
The candidate's decision in a televised debate to call his vote on Terri Schiavo a "mistake" turned off many sympathetic Catholic voters -- especially young people -- displaying an amazing lack of insight regarding the Catholic voter. Again, it suggests he is getting bad advice.
Senator Obama will have to stretch himself to reach Catholic voters, and should not deceive himself into thinking that he's a "natural" for them. He needs to be himself, act humbly toward social conservatives, and acknowledge the differences while looking for places where he can connect with them.