Ramesh Ponnuru opines today that Barack Obama “is trying to woo evangelical voters more than any Democrat since Jimmy Carter”. I don’t doubt it. I don’t know whether Obama is also trying to woo Catholic voters “more” than his immediate predecessors tried. Maybe he is. I am certain, though, that Obama possesses great appeal to educated Catholics who see themselves as having transcended “single-issue” (read:abortion) voting. These folks might allow, or even say, that they are “pro-life”. But they would say too that one must examine a whole “seamless garment” of issues before voting. Call them “social justice” Catholics. There are lots of them. And they are crucial swing voters in places such as Colorado, Ohio, Michigan, places where green issues, or the long association of their father’s union with the Democratic party, or Obama’s racial identity (among other things) make the Democratic lever the default setting in the voting booth.
John McCain needs the lion’s share of these swing voters to win the Presidency. I think he can get that many. But he will not get that many if he chooses either Tom Ridge or Joe Lieberman for his running mate. There are several reasons why either of these choices — or the choice of anyone else who is not as solid on abortion as is John McCain — portends an Obama Presidency. Here is the main reason why. The “social justice” Catholic is an uneasy Democrat precisely because of the abortion issue. He or she knows that there is something very special — foundational and even non-negotiable — about abortion. And so these folks swiftly paddle away from any debate about what is right or wrong about abortion. They know it is very seriously wrong.
That is why almost all their justifications for supporting Obama (if they do support Obama) are about something else. Sometimes and partly, it is about other issues (the death toll in Iraq or jobs) and how they constitute proportionate reasons for voting against the clearly pro-life McCain. But sooner or later the rationale most social justice Catholics give for voting Democratic circles around to — and depends heavily upon –some version of this claim: the Republican party is the party of fatcats and country clubbers who talk about (and press) social issues enough to get the votes they need, but not enough to effect any real change. (That these upper-crusters attract the support of so many evangelical zealots (as the social justice Catholic would phrase it) does not – truth be told — increase the GOP’s appeal to them.) The social-justice Catholic concludes that the net difference, on the ground, between the parties is just not that great. Better then to vote on the basis of other issues, where there are deep and abiding differences between them.
If McCain chooses a pro-choice running mate he will lose too much traction against this line of reasoning to win the argument. And he will lose the votes of too many social-justice Catholics to win the election.