Action Alert!

Summer Cookouts and Party Politics

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky (bio - articles - email) | Jul 19, 2016

Here we go again. As we enter the season for the national political conventions in preparation for the November vote we will once again witness how our politicians-– in large part reflecting the views of the populace-– view the abortion or pro-life “issue.” (Incidentally referring to the question of whether we should legally be allowed to kill unborn babies as an “issue” is rather unseemly. If it were legal to kill priests I would object to reducing the horror to an antiseptic political “issue.” Thus my use of quotation marks.) Here is my take on the mood of the parties.

With exceptions that only an intense Google search would turn up, nearly every Democrat is “pro-choice,” that is, “pro-abortion.” (A quick example helps explain my equation of the terms. Nobody would allow a politician to claim he was “pro-choice” with respect to the lynching of black men. “I’m personally opposed to lynching black men but I will not impose my morality on others.” It would be obvious that he didn’t take murder seriously. Incidentally, doesn’t every law on the books by nature “impose morality”?) It’s no surprise and absolutely accurate to say that the Democrats have long been the “Party of Abortion.” The “right” to abortion has been enshrined in the party platform for years, and will be again this year. (Washington Times headline: “Democrats’ Platform Backs Abortion Funds,” July 12, 2016). Ho, hum.

Does this suggest that the opposition, the Republican Party, is the “Party of Life”? Certainly the number of “pro-life” legislators is far greater on the Republican side of the aisle. The famous “Hyde Amendment” that bans federal money from directly paying for abortions was a Republican initiative sponsored by a truly heroic politician, Illinois Representative Henry Hyde. A strong pro-life plank has been included in every Republican Presidential platform since the 1980s. At least we have that going for us. But how dedicated are the Republicans to advancing pro-life legislation? The results are mixed, and in recent years almost nil. Last December, for example, the Republican “Ryan Budget” included funding of Planned Parenthood despite the grotesque revelations of that organization’s selling of aborted baby parts.

How then are we to understand the differences between Democrats and Republicans with respect to the abortion “issue”? Perhaps a summer cookout metaphor would help: hamburgers versus the salt and pepper.

Democrats view the abortion “issue” as their hamburger. It is the outward sign of their social agenda, which includes “gay rights” and most forms of “sex on demand.” When any “omnibus” legislation is introduced, if it includes any legislative piece that restricts abortion in any way, it has no hope of advancement if the Democrats control the Senate, the House, or the Executive branch. Democrat control of even one of these branches guarantees failure in advancing significant pro-life legislation. The December Ryan Budget included funding for Planned Parenthood because the Republicans knew that the Democrats would “shut down the government” in defense of the funding-– and blame the Republicans for intransigence. Even when the Republicans hold all three branches of government, experience shows that the introduction of significant pro-life legislation guarantees gridlock with charges of a Republican “war on women.” As a consequence, the Republicans generally cave without a fight. Democrats will not give up their pro-abortion “hamburger” without a lot of kicking and screaming.

The Republicans, on the other hand, are generally “pro-life.” The majority are probably nominally pro-life, with a distinct and praiseworthy minority of Republicans fiercely pro-life. (You need no Google search to come up with a quick half-dozen solidly pro-life Republican names.) So why do Republicans in the main fail to advance significant pro-life legislation? The reason is that the Republicans as a body consider the pro-life “issue” as mere “salt and pepper” to their “hamburger” issues of tax cuts, foreign policy, and free trade. This explains why Republican candidates-– especially Presidential candidates-- have postured as pro-life politicians, obtained the pro-life votes, and then failed to deliver. When it comes to jeopardizing their “hamburger” tax cut and foreign policy legislation-– when faced with charges of their alleged “war on women”-– they’re willing to go without the pro-life salt and pepper. As a result, when principled pro-life constituents vote they feel like Charlie Brown felt when Lucy was holding the football.

The upcoming election cycle is taking shape in a similar way but with a noteworthy difference. The Democrats with Hillary Clinton, of course, will continue to be the Party of Abortion, with the “right to abortion” as their hamburger issue. The Republicans with Donald Trump will likely again be the Party of Life, with the pro-life plank as a salt and pepper issue. If Hillary Clinton is elected, there will be absolutely no hope for any advancement of the pro-life cause and likely the opposite, along with an increasing vise grip on religious liberty. But Donald Trump is the wild card.

Trump’s professed pro-life position is transparently a “salt and pepper” position. And his stance is probably purely expedient, just as GOP candidate Mitt Romney’s before him-– although Trump hasn’t wavered since adopting this born-again position for his run. His hamburger issues clearly include immigration, trade and an “America First” foreign policy.

This is where the food fight begins within the Republican Party. The “Never Trump” posturing is due mostly to the Republican establishment hamburger issues that are at odds with the Trump agenda: tax cuts, foreign policy (the Middle East, NATO, and relations with Putin), and free trade, including a hardened stance against tariffs. Trump’s stunning ability to run a campaign-– and win the nomination-- without the support of the donor class but with the support of a profoundly discontented electorate is the perfect storm bringing him success. Yet the pro-life “issue” remains to Trump-– and establishment Republicans-– mere salt and pepper, open to manipulation by both sides.

The vacancy on the Supreme Court created by the death of Antonin Scalia is a potential game-changer, providing Trump with a real trump card. In previous election cycles, Republicans posturing as pro-life could take for granted the pro-life vote, not because the pro-life electorate trusted them but because it was far more likely a nominally pro-life President would select an originalist jurist for the Court. But vacancies have been rare and could not be predicted. So the pro-life vote was usually not particularly energized, swinging easily in the direction of pro-life third party candidates like Pat Buchanan in 2000.

However, with the existing vacancy on the Court and with the Republicans’ praiseworthy promise to maintain the vacancy until after the November elections, Trump has been handed an issue that could electrify pro-life voters. True to form, Trump is offering pro-lifers a deal, based on votes in exchange for the potential Supreme Court nominees on his list. In so doing Trump may be successful in jump-starting the pro-life vote in the weeks ahead. He is exercising power politics to be sure, but as a clear “deal" for votes. It’s not the stuff of statecraft, but power politics according to his playbook The Art of the Deal. It may be not be edifying, but it’s a reality.

While the pro-life “issue” likely remains a “salt and pepper” issue to him, it seems unlikely for deal-maker Trump to backtrack on his promise to nominate originalist jurists to the Court, especially after publicly identifying his potential nominees. Originalist jurists need not be “pro-life.” But restoring the Court with originalist jurists who are not likely to find new and dubious “rights” (abortion, suppression of religious liberty, etc.) in the “emanations of the penumbra” of the text of the Constitution would be a significant pro-life victory.

Ironically many establishment Republicans who profess to be pro-life have been withholding their endorsements of Trump. They are once again protecting their hamburger issues of tax cuts, foreign policy, and free trade at the expense of the pro-life salt and pepper. This time the food fight is taking place within the Republican Party, not in the halls of Congress. It may be their own form of deal-making.

The stakes are high and the next few months promise fascinating political theater.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. Father Pokorsky also serves as a director and treasurer of Human Life International.
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  • Posted by: tpodonnell0211 - Jul. 23, 2016 5:09 PM ET USA

    "it seems unlikely for deal-maker Trump to backtrack on his promise to nominate originalist jurists to the Court, especially after publicly identifying his potential nominees." I am skeptical of this claim. Others are not. This seems to be the hinge on which a pro-lifers either votes for or does not vote for Trump. He has not kept many promises over the years. Do we vote for a candidate based merely on what he promises, or also on his record of delivery?

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jul. 20, 2016 10:59 AM ET USA

    You hit the nail on the head. The prolife position is a moral "issue" among Republicans and a "rights" (read "privileges," as in the privilege to kill an innocent child) "issue" among Democrats. As a moral "issue," Republican politicians subordinate it to the more important political "issues." It is a salt-and-pepper "issue," as you say. Moral "issues" are now relegated to personal "choice," whereas they used to lie at the foundation of public policy. The divorce of morality from political life.