The hunt for the great American Catholic voter of 2008 started in earnest last week, led by none other than New York’s junior Senator, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Speaking about a Republican-passed immigration bill that would make it a felony to be in the United States illegally, or to aid an illegal immigrant, Mrs. Clinton said, “It is certainly not in keeping with my understanding of the Scriptures, because the bill would literally criminalize the Good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself.”
Not coincidently, on the same day that Mrs. Clinton was channeling the late Catholic agitator Dorothy Day, the Democratic National Committee was disseminating via e-mail an opinion article voicing similar sentiments written by Cardinal Roger Mahony, the archbishop of Los Angeles.
The gambit shows the lengths to which Democrats will go to recapture Catholic voters, a quarter of the electorate, 55 percent of whom cast their ballots for President Bush in 2004 notwithstanding the Catholic faith of Democratic nominee John Kerry. It’s fair turnabout: During the 2004 campaign, Mr. Bush paid a high-profile visit to the Vatican, and months later, some Catholic bishops urged voters to shun politicians like Mr. Kerry who support abortion rights.
Now, Democrats want to woo back the many Hispanic Catholic voters who deserted them in 2004, hence their emphasis on immigrants’ rights, ventured out of conviction but also with the hope of flipping into their column states like Colorado and New Mexico, which went narrowly for Mr. Bush two years ago.
Mrs. Clinton, however, has positioned herself way ahead of her party and any of her putative 2008 Presidential rivals by championing initiatives that appeal to middle-class, white-ethnic, suburban Catholic voters, especially married women (another group that swung heavily to the G.O.P. in 2004). She knows that Catholic defections kept the vote uncomfortably close in some heavily Catholic states that Mr. Kerry won—including Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Pennsylvania—and contributed to Mr. Bush’s single-point victory in Iowa.
So we find Mrs. Clinton advocating “pro-family” legislation: for example, joining with the Senate’s two most conservative Catholics—Republicans Sam Brownback of Kansas and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania—to push for a bill authorizing research into the supposedly pernicious effects of electronic media on children. And there she was late last year, in a heavily Catholic Nassau County suburb, touting her bill to make cars safer for children. (As The New York Times noted this week, she has made herself an expert on the infrastructure issues of the aging suburb.) Need we mention her conciliatory language on abortion?
Strategists have been saying for some time that Mrs. Clinton will use her re-election campaign in the heavily Catholic areas of upstate New York as a laboratory for her expected 2008 Presidential bid. “Her spin is, ‘Hey, look, I can win Catholic votes. If I can win the western tier of New York, I can win Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania,’” said veteran Democratic operative Hank Sheinkopf. If religion-tinged issues such as abortion and gay marriage can be neutralized in those areas, the Democrats can win on economic issues among hard-pressed Catholic men, Mr. Sheinkopf argues.
Illinois-born Mrs. Clinton, contra her Republican caricature as an angry liberal, can claim an advantage with Catholic and other so-called values voters: Unlike most Democrats, she sounds sincere when she employs Jesus language. Her problem regarding religion and the American electorate is not that she’s a heathen: In fact, she qualifies as one of the most overtly Christian politicians in the country. It’s just that, with conservative evangelical Protestants ascendant, she’s the wrong kind of Christian. Raised in the United Methodist Church as a Goldwater conservative, in college she embraced the movement’s modernist “peace with justice” wing just as liberal Protestantism began a long decline. But she did learn how to speak to conservative Protestants as the First Lady of Arkansas, and once upon a time a follower of an evangelical denomination—a Baptist named Bill Clinton—begged her to marry him.
Even as some recent polling shows the G.O.P. losing its edge with Catholics, Republicans will counter with their accomplishments and positions. Mr. Bush elevated two Catholics to the Supreme Court—in part on a bet that abortion will remain a helpful issue for Republicans. He named the first Hispanic U.S. Attorney General. G.O.P. positions against embryonic stem-cell research closely track Catholic Church stands. The gay-marriage issue—which Mr. Bush cynically leveraged, then dropped like a hot potato after the 2004 election—could be reinvigorated. No strategist ever went broke overestimating the Democrats’ capacity to shoot themselves in the foot on national security.
’Tis true. But count on this: With Catholics or any other faith-based voters, Hillary Clinton will be the Democrat best positioned to speak to their issues.