Election Day 2008 was a moment of unambiguous triumph for Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. But do Tuesday’s results make it a “pivot” election, as some of have suggested, marking the transition from 28 years of Republican ideological dominion to a new era of liberal supremacy? We won’t know the answer to this question with any certainty until the exit poll data have been closely studied and the popularity of President Obama’s policies assiduously tracked. But early indications are that on at least one measure--success at breaking apart the theoconservative coalition that formed the core of President Bush’s support over the past eight years--Obama failed to lay much of a groundwork for a long-term rout of the Republican Party.
Consider the voting patterns of the roughly 26 percent of Americans who describe themselves as white evangelical/born again Protestants. Early exit polls compiled by Steven Waldman at Beliefnet show that John McCain won these voters by a margin of 74 percent to 25 percent. That’s down somewhat from Bush’s record 78 percent in 2004, but still considerably higher than the number of evangelical votes Bush himself managed to win in 2000 (68 percent). That Obama, who aggressively courted these voters with religious appeals, fell five points short of Al Gore’s 30 percent showing among evangelicals in 2000 must be judged a disappointment.
A glance at Obama’s success at wooing white Catholic voters, who make up roughly 19 percent of the electorate, reveals results only slightly less sobering. While Obama beat John Kerry’s anemic 43 percent by three percentage points, McCain still managed to win a solid majority (53 percent) of the white Catholic vote, slightly bettering George W. Bush’s showing of 52 percent in 2000.
How did McCain, whose (nominal) personal faith played a far smaller role in his campaign than Bush’s piety did in his, manage to keep the theocon electoral coalition together? McCain’s vice-presidential choice no doubt explains some of his accomplishment: Sarah Palin quickly became a kind of folk hero to evangelicals.
But much of the blame must fall upon Obama. The Democrat reached out to devout believers in his rhetoric and in his surprising proposal to expand on President Bush’s faith-based initiatives. Yet on the make-or-break issue of abortion, Obama staked out positions as antagonistic to the concerns of the religious right as the most uncompromising secular liberal. Obama permitted the Democratic Party to strip all moral language from the discussion of abortion in its 2008 platform. His record as a Illinois state legislator showed that he opposed a bill that would have outlawed the killing of a fetus “born live” in a botched abortion. And he promised that, as president, he would sign the federal Freedom of Choice Act, which would nullify any state or federal law that would interfere with access to abortion, including parental notification laws and “partial birth” (late-term) restrictions. In the eyes of many devout Catholics and evangelicals, these positions make Obama a pro-abortion extremist.
Rejoicing in their victory, many liberals will be inclined to say good riddance to such voters. And this may make electoral sense. Perhaps the combination of long-term demographic trends and the incompetence of Republican governance over the past eight years have forged a center-left electoral coalition that will persist for years to come. Maybe the theoconservative base of the Republican Party will wither away on its own, now that it’s been deprived of the oxygen of direct political influence. Perhaps the GOP will purge itself of its religious faction in the violent recriminations that have already begun, leaving devout Catholics and evangelicals to wander in the wilderness without a political home, much as Protestant fundamentalists did during the four decades following the humiliation of the Scopes Trial of 1925.
Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet on it. As long as the Democratic Party continues to take its cues on social policy from those who refuse any compromise on abortion, it will give the Republicans the gift that keeps on giving: a large, stable, immensely loyal bloc of voters passionately committed to protecting (as they see it) innocent human life from lethal violence and those who champion the right to inflict it. For the moment, there aren’t enough of these voters to get the GOP to victory. But there are more than enough of them to ensure that the Republicans will begin their efforts to reconstitute a winning coalition from a position of relative strength, with millions of motivated foot soldiers dedicated to the struggle ahead.
It wouldn’t take much to undermine the morale of a significant number of these ideological combatants, and perhaps even to inspire them to defect to the Democratic side of the aisle. For starters, President Obama could privately urge congressional Democrats not to take up the Freedom of Choice Act--a piece of legislation that, if passed, would instantaneously erase the (quite modest) legislative accomplishments of the pro-life movement over the past two decades and thus provoke it more effectively than anything since the Supreme Court’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision of 1992. (Outrage at that decision, which affirmed abortion rights in more sweeping terms than the original Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, helped to hold the religious right together through the desert of the nineties and prepared it for mobilization once a suitable champion--George W. Bush--arrived on the scene.)
Beyond that, Obama could follow the lead of Bill Clinton in combining a stalwart defense of the right to choose with an acknowledgement that the decision to have an abortion is a choice that troubles the consciences of many millions of Americans--including many millions who steadfastly support abortion rights. Clinton’s “safe, legal, and rare” served him well in this regard, but surely an orator as gifted as Obama could forge an even finer phrase or passage of prose to capture the often tragic moral complexities surrounding this most divisive of issues.
In taking such a conciliatory approach, Obama would not only contribute in an important way to fulfilling his stated desire to heal the cultural fissures that have fractured our nation since the mid-sixties. He would also help to ensure that the victory of November 2008 proves to be the start of a new era of liberal leadership, instead of merely the latest Democratic parenthesis in an age of Republican domination.