The Lessons of the 2006 Elections
As discouraging as the outcome of yesterday’s elections is for pro-lifers, I believe the results are more positive than political pundits would have us believe. Whenever there is electoral discontent over the economy or (in this case) war, incumbents are typically swept from power. Yet the Democrats have gained only the average number of seats for mid-term elections in a second-term presidency.
The normal gain under these circumstances is eight Senate seats and 28 House seats. This year the Democrats gained six Senate seats, with one still in doubt, and 27 House seats. These average numbers may conceal several lessons.
Lesson One: The Middle is Shrinking
We all know what the critical issues were in this election, and they have little to do with the mantras of political advertising (beware of the Republicans because they favor big-money special interests; beware of the Democrats because they tax and spend). For serious pro-life and pro-abortion voters, the primary issue was the same as ever: the question of the nature and value of human life that lies at the heart of the culture wars. Since the economy is in good shape, the primary issue for the proverbially large and soft American middle—those who vote with little or no reference to universal principles—was of course the Iraq War.
Given these two issues, I believe the electoral evidence suggests the American middle is growing both somewhat less large and somewhat less soft. While there was certainly movement away from incumbents which must be attributed in significant part to the war, the swing, being only average, was by definition undramatic. Indeed, in one very notable case, the moderate Joseph Lieberman won reelection to his Senate seat as an Independent after having been squeezed out of the Democratic party by the predominant radical left. Lieberman’s unstinting support for “staying the course” in Iraq is extremely relevant in this context. For his voters, there was something worse than the war.
Lesson Two: Beware Political Naïveté
Republicans must grant, I think, that President Bush and his strongest supporters have been naïve about the war. They seem from the first to have overestimated both potential pro-American sentiment in Iraq and the ability of superior military power to solve problems which are very deeply social, cultural and religious. Anyone who lived through the Vietnam years should know that Americans do not like protracted foreign involvement unless they feel directly threatened. Bush’s naïveté became a significant political liability for Republicans. Again, however, the electorate has been somewhat more gritty than expected in understanding that—regardless of who is to blame—there is no easy way to get out of Iraq quickly without betraying large numbers of people to internecine slaughter. This may be one reason why the expected mandate for change produced only average results. Still, the discontent was palpable, and this discontent presented both a critical problem for Republicans and a golden opportunity for Democrats. Broadly speaking, this means that those who favor abortion and same-sex marriage were handed a potentially devastating weapon with which to halt the political advance of the culture of life. Lesson Three: The Priority of the Culture of Life
Not only is Iraq very far from home and very difficult to control, but the war puts a very small number of people at risk when compared with the life issues here at home. Pro-lifers should have been aware when Bush first considered going to war that there would be a probability of long-term discontent in the face of a protracted struggle. They should have realized from the beginning that almost no conceivable political objective was important enough to risk the failure to restore the Supreme Court. The Court has been the leading force in the destruction of American socio-political culture since Earl Warren became Chief Justice in the 1950’s.
In the long run, a return to the principles of natural law among the electorate will be the minimum requirement for the restoration of civilization and the protection of the innocent in America. Meanwhile, an insistence that the Supreme Court must respect the text of the Constitution can shift the culture wars dramatically, creating a long series of very winnable battles. The Court is thus critical for both the continuation of the American experiment and the creation of a political climate in which the culture of life can flourish. Reforming the Court is the most critical single step in stopping America’s drift into secularist oligarchy.
At this moment, Republican control of the Senate still hangs in the balance because of one race too close to call in Virginia. As the Senate goes, so goes the Court. There is still a very slim chance that pro-lifers may have a large voice in the next and most critical judicial appointment. If not, we will have a long time to reflect on Thomas More’s indictment of Richard Rich in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. Rich had betrayed More in return for being set over Wales. To paraphrase More’s scathing comment: “Americans, the Lord said that it did not profit a man to gain the whole world if he lost his soul. The whole world, Americans...but for Iraq?”
Lesson Four: The Benefit of the Doubt
The final results of this election will tell us very clearly how much the culture of life still depends politically on the contentment of the soft American middle. Those who are spiritually weak are inevitably restless, and in their restlessness they necessarily yearn for change. The new Democrat winners are already fond of repeating that the people have demanded change. We are not surprised. But the unanswered question is whether the culture of life can have a political future in America even when those who ignore universal principles are restless. Is the polarization great enough that the middle will soon fade into insignificance?
As little as ten years ago, the outcome of this election would not have been in the remotest doubt. Nor would there have been so much anecdotal evidence to belie the outcome. Of eight states voting on constitutional amendments to limit marriage to a man and a woman, seven passed the amendment. In several closely contested races, the Democrats resorted to fielding genuinely socially conservative candidates in order to win. One thinks, for example, of ex-Redskin quarterback Heath Shuler in North Carolina. And in the most obvious case, Rick Santorum, a strong pro-life Republican senator, could be beaten only by a pro-life Democrat whose family name is an icon for suffering on behalf of the pro-life cause.
That the outcome is still in doubt now is a sign of hope, and not only because Republicans might still control the Senate. The hopeful sign is that doubt exists when, by past political rules, there should be no doubt at all. For example, Ronald Reagan, who was wildly popular, never had the House of Representatives on his side even for a moment. Bush, who is far less popular, has done far better. There should have been a Democratic landslide in this election.
Whatever the result for 2006, this prolonged tension may well mean that the culture of life has gained considerable traction. In the long run, the most striking feature of this election may be hidden in the fact with which this column began: Democrat gains were only average, and the party had to tilt ever so slightly toward life to win.
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