WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton is poised to become the first female presidential nominee of a major political party in the United States, but she is also a candidate with mounting credibility issues that leave many voters wary of electing another Clinton to the White House.
And she has a history of advancing causes, such as abortion rights and the redefinition of marriage, that are directly opposed to moral teachings highlighted by the U.S. bishops, in their 2015 update to their document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” as being of particular significance when Catholic voters make decisions about how to cast their ballots.
Already burdened with a significant amount of negative political baggage, Clinton received more negative press last month, when a U.S. State Department inspector general said she failed to comply with the agency’s policies on records while using a personal email server that would never have been approved by agency officials.
Further, Clinton has been hounded by questions about her handling of the State Department during the September 2012 deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
“A lot of people don’t like and don’t trust her,” said Joshua Mercer, the co-founder and political director at CatholicVote.org. “There’s a personal likeability that she’s lacking.”
But the former first lady, senator from New York and secretary of state will be running against a presumptive Republican nominee, businessman Donald Trump, who has a slew of his own character problems, given his admitted womanizing and controversial statements on the campaign trail that have led to accusations that Trump is a misogynistic and racist demagogue.
The choices on the November ballot could lead some voters to stay at home, but others may decide to head to the polls, either to elect the first woman president in the country’s history or to shake up the political system by electing an outsider who talks tough and has vowed to “make America great again” by cracking down on illegal immigration and scrapping unfair trade treaties.
“We know that Hillary is a historically unpopular candidate, the most unpopular presidential nominee since we’ve been doing popularity polls of presidential nominees, with the exception of one, which is Donald Trump,” said Geoffrey Layman, a political science professor from the University of Notre Dame.
Layman, author of The Great Divide: Religious and Cultural Conflict in American Party Politics, told the Register that he believes Clinton, despite all of her baggage, is still the front-runner at this point, given the historic nature of her candidacy and the national demographic and electoral trends that favor the Democrats.
Clinton will likely get support from traditional segments of the Democratic Party’s base, including labor unions, African-Americans and Latinos, as well as lobbyists for homosexual rights and legal abortion. She also polls well among suburban, college-educated white voters.
To shore up her support, Clinton is looking to unite the Democratic Party around her campaign. On June 9, President Barack Obama formally endorsed her after a closed-door meeting with her Democratic rival Bernie Sanders, who later announced that he planned to meet with Clinton to discuss ideas on how they could work together to defeat Trump.
Several observers believe Clinton will not have any major problems uniting her party for the general election.
“Bernie Sanders appealed to the active, zealous base of the Democratic Party, and you’d like to have that kind of enthusiasm behind your campaign,” Layman said. “He did much better with young voters than Hillary did, and I think that’s a particularly vulnerable group for the Republican party this [time] around with Trump. So if you’re Clinton, you’d like to have those votes.”
The Clinton campaign’s website includes a laundry list of issues that could appeal to Catholic voters motivated by elements of Catholic social teaching, including advocating for disability rights, racial justice, reforming the criminal justice system and dealing with sexual assaults on college campuses. And her position on immigration, calling for comprehensive reform, with a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the nation, aligns generally with policies supported by the U.S. bishops.
Ardent Abortion Supporter
However, Catholic voters will be dismayed that Clinton has wholeheartedly embraced her party’s positions supporting same-sex “marriage,” the “transgender” movement, abortion and religious liberty, among other key moral issues.
Clinton has long been an ardent supporter of legal abortion. As first lady, she championed the push to declare abortion and contraception as global rights at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. As a U.S. senator, she voted against the federal ban on partial-birth abortion.
In January, she became the first presidential candidate to be endorsed by Planned Parenthood. While always known as a vigorous promoter of abortion rights, in the past she used moderate language about wanting abortions to be “safe, rare and legal.” But since she has been running for president, and courting the support of party activists, Clinton has struck a more hardline tone. Weeks after her campaign launch, Clinton told a global woman’s conference that religious beliefs, cultural codes and “structural biases” have to be changed in countries where women struggle for education and reproductive rights.
Clinton has also called for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, a legislative provision that prohibits federal funds being used to pay for abortions.
Even as Clinton has struck a strong pro-abortion stance on the campaign trail, the United Methodist Church of which she is a member voted in May to repeal its affiliation with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and its 40-year-old resolution supporting Roe v. Wade.
“The choice for pro-lifers is not really that good right now,” said Kristen Day, the executive director of Democrats for Life of America.
Day told the Register that she is disheartened by Clinton’s “catering to the extreme minority position of the Democratic Party.”
“She wants to get New York and California,” Day said. “If she gets those two states, it’s a huge electoral advantage. Moderating her position on abortion might hurt her in those two states.”
Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America and co-chairman of Catholics for Obama during the 2012 campaign, has been public in his opposition to Trump, but he has not endorsed anyone for president.
“Of course, [Clinton] was and still is being pushed hard from the left by Sen. Sanders,” said Schneck, who is a former member of Democrats for Life’s board of directors. “When the Sanders’ pressure is gone and the general election campaign is under way, will the Clinton campaign return to its moderate language? One early test will be to see what the campaign promotes in regard to abortion in the developing Democratic Platform for the Democratic National Convention.”
Marriage and Liberty
In contrast to abortion, where her shift has been largely a matter of tone rather than substance, Clinton completely changed her position on same-sex “marriage” as public opinion polls began showing that a majority of Americans supported the redefinition of marriage.
In her senatorial campaigns and her first presidential run in 2008, Clinton said she supported civil unions for same-sex couples, but she held out against same-sex “marriage.” Though she opposed a federal amendment to ban same-sex “marriage,” Clinton declared marriage to be a “sacred bond between a man and a woman” while speaking on the Senate floor in July 2004.
But in March 2013, after she left the State Department, Clinton announced her support for the redefinition of marriage. And she lauded the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that declared same-sex “marriage” to be a constitutional right in all 50 states.
Closely related to the marriage debate is the issue of religious liberty and conscience rights for people of faith and religious institutions that hold fast to the biblical understanding of marriage and sexuality. As secretary of state, Clinton described religious freedom as “an essential element of human dignity and of secure, thriving societies.”
But as a presidential candidate, Clinton concerned some observers of religious liberty in an October 2015 speech she delivered to the Human Rights Campaign. In the speech, she condemned Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act and criticized supporters of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who was jailed last year for refusing to sign off on marriage licenses for same-sex couples.
In that same speech, Clinton also declared her support for The Equality Act, which would add the categories of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the protected classes in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
“I think, among Catholic Democrats, Hillary does pretty well,” Layman, of Notre Dame, said. “But she certainly does not do well among Catholic Republicans or Catholics who care a lot about abortion.”
Shifting Electoral Map?
Deal Hudson, publisher and editor of The Christian Review and the former director of Catholic outreach for the Republican National Committee under President George W. Bush, told the Register that Trump could very well win key states that have alternated between Republican and Democrat in recent elections.
“Trump changes the electoral map because Trump could even take a blue state like New York,” said Hudson, who believes 2016 will resemble the controversial close election of 2000, where George W. Bush defeated Al Gore.
“I think it will be extremely close,” Hudson said.
However, Catholic Democrats told the Register that they find it difficult to believe that Trump will carry swing or liberal-leaning states.
“In order for Trump to do something like this, he would need to do better than Mitt Romney with minority groups, and he is, in fact, doing much worse,” said Charles Camosy, a moral theologian at Fordham University, who sits on the board of Democrats for Life of America.
Another factor is changing demographics.
“The fact that the electorate is growing increasingly non-white does not favor the Republicans,” Layman said. “That’s why the Republican National Committee came out after the 2012 elections with a plan that suggested that they should pursue comprehensive immigration reform, appeal more to Latino voters and appeal more to women and young voters.”
“But Trump has done just the opposite,” Layman said.
However, with a pair of controversial candidates laden with so many potential liabilities, many analysts believe it’s difficult to predict the outcome of a Trump-Clinton contest.
“They’re both weak candidates, with a lot of negatives in the mind of the public. It’s an unusual situation,” said Stephen Krason, a professor of political science and legal studies and director of the political-science program at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
Krason told the Register that he sees the 2016 election “going either way,” given Trump’s alienating brand of campaigning and the lack of excitement among the Democratic base for Clinton.
Said Krason, “The election could result in chunks of different demographics going in different places.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.