For the past 20 years, Dr. Matthew E. Bunson has been active in the area of Catholic social communications and education, including writing, editing, and teaching on a variety of topics related to Church history, the papacy, the saints and Catholic culture. He is faculty chair at Catholic Distance University, a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and the author or co-author of over 50 books including: The Encyclopedia of Catholic History, The Pope Encyclopedia, We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI, The Saints Encyclopedia and best-selling biographies of St. Damien of Molokai and St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
As has been noted in earlier blog posts, presidential campaigns can be marked off by the weeks that are won or lost by a candidate, and political fortunes can rise and fall on some of the most unexpected events.
Such so far has been the case with the unprecedented 2016 presidential race. Republican nominee Donald Trump faced several difficult weeks after the Republican convention, with his troubles largely beginning with the media’s attention on Khizr Khan, the father of a fallen U.S. Army Captain in Afghanistan. The Khan dust-up was just the start of several weeks of batteringly negative coverage. As he has done throughout the entire presidential campaign cycle, however, Trump managed to survive, despite declarations by media pundits that the race was all but over with Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton.
Two weeks into September, however, and this is a race that has changed dramatically. This was forecast in a recent blog post, Trumping Catholics, as Trump managed to gain the political high ground and to start dictating the themes and discussion of the campaign, but other events have aided the reversal significantly.
First, in a word, Hillary Clinton’s last two weeks have been calamitous. Already burdened by her maladroit handling of the Clinton Foundation scandals, the continued political and even legal crisis of the e-mail scandal and her own overly cautious and lackluster campaign, Clinton’s situation grew much worse with her now infamous “basket of deplorables” speech and a health crisis that is still unsettled and could portend a political pneumonia more perilous than the bacterial pneumonia that apparently caused her to collapse on September 11.
Her “deplorable” comments came at an LGBT fundraiser in New York City. She said during her speech:
You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now how 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.
The comment, compared already to Barack Obama’s “God and Guns” comment in 2008 and Mitt Romney’s “47%,” could be worse for Clinton because it reinforces her persistent elitist reputation and is disdainful of the very disaffected voters she is hoping to attract in swing states.
The video of Clinton passing out in the arms of her staff and security detail was one of those unexpected moments that every campaign fears, especially when such episodes serve to highlight weaknesses and problem that were already present. In Clinton’s case, it only exacerbated the already widespread perception that she and her campaign are secretive and mendacious.
The result of all of this is an unmistakable tightening of the polls, both nationally and in the vital swing states. Trump has drawn into a virtual tie and has actually surged into the lead in several key battleground states, including Ohio and Florida. According to realclearpolitics.com, they are separated by barely a point, and it is barely a point when all four candidates are counted, including Libertarian Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein.
The Trump campaign wisely embraced Napoleon Bonaparte’s maxim that you should never interfere while your enemy is destroying himself. But it would not be enough merely to benefit from Clinton’s struggles.
To be sure, he has struggled with Catholics, but a clear strategy has emerged on the part of the Trump campaign for engaging with faith voters in general and Pro-Life voters (a large subset of Catholic voters) in particular. The approach was unveiled in a subtle fashion by Trump’s unexpected video celebrating the canonization of St. Teresa of Calcutta. Clinton made her own comments, but the Democrat nominee’s cooperation with Mother Teresa in the 1990’s is overshadowed in history by the memorable speech by Mother Teresa that called on the Clintons to support the Culture of Life.
Trump has no such baggage. The video was not given wide attention in the media, but it caught the attention of many Catholics at precisely the right moment. This was a smart opening to Pro-Life Catholics who might still be suspicious of Trump, despite the egregious pro-abortion record of Hillary Clinton.
Even more palpable was Trump’s speech at the Faith and Values Voters Summit in Washington, D.C. on September 9, followed by Vice Presidential candidate Gov. Mike Pence’s address the next day. Trump made a clear pitch at wooing voters concerned about the state of the family today and promised to be its defender and promoter with policies ranging from school choice to Supreme Court picks and even the defense of religious liberty. These are all key issues for many Catholic voters; “…our media culture,” he said, “often mocks and demeans people of faith. And you understand that. All the time I hear from concerned parents how much harder it is for a Christian family to raise their children in today’s media environment.”
He added, “Crucially, I will also fight for the American family and American family values. The family must be at the center of any anti-poverty agenda.”
The next day, Pence echoed his running mate on the family. He said:
We will not restore this nation with public policy alone. It will require public virtue. And that emanates from the traditional institutions of our nation of family and religion. You heard him say it yesterday. At the center of all of our policies will be the notion of the importance and the paramount importance of the family, and also will be at the center of our policies will be a commitment to ensure the vitality and the freedom of religion of every American and every religious institution in the land.
Pence then delivered an even more vigorous statement of Pro-Life principles. He pledged to end all funding for the abortion giant Planned Parenthood and added:
…when President Donald Trump takes office, we will work with the Congress and we will sign into law the Pain-Capable Unborn Protection Act. We will end late-term abortions nationwide. As my running mate said not so long ago, quote, “We should not be one of seven countries that allows elective abortions after 20 weeks. It goes against our core values.” While Hillary Clinton and her running mate call for an end to the historic advance of the Hyde amendment, a Trump-Pence administration will uphold the Hyde amendment and prevent the taxpayer dollars of millions of pro-life Americans from being used to fund abortion.
And then Trump himself became manifestly clear in courting the entire Life movement with the announcement of a Pro-Life Coalition spearheaded by noted Pro-Life leader Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List. In a September letter to Pro-Life leaders, he wrote:
I am committed to:
· Nominating pro-life justices to the U.S. Supreme Court.
· Signing into law the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would end painful late-term abortions nationwide.
· Defunding Planned Parenthood as long as they continue to perform abortions, and reallocating their funding to community health centers that provide comprehensive health care for women.
· Making the Hyde Amendment permanent law to protect taxpayers from having to pay for abortions.
These are genuinely specific promises that are much desired by supporters of the Culture of Life. If the Trump campaign can complete the process of outreach to Pro-Life voters, it could go a long way in rallying a potentially large segment of Catholic voters. That could be crucial in a race where a few points in either direction or a few hundred thousand votes could literally determine the outcome of the election.