What do the chief editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal, an international pro-life activist and a Tea Party sympathizer in Texas have in common?
The three, who spoke with the Register, all have high hopes for the midterm elections.
What each will watch for Nov. 2 is revealing. Voters will decide who controls the U.S. House of Representatives and who sits in 37 U.S. Senate seats.
The Wall Street Journal’s Bill McGurn, who was President George W. Bush’s speech writer, will be watching the race as commentary on national politics.
“In this election, it’s not just the membership of Congress that will change. It’s going to challenge all the conventional wisdom of the last two years,” he said.
Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute, will watch pro-life candidates for the Senate.
“I think the GOP will win the House, but the Senate is the real prize for pro-lifers,” he said. “There are actually five Senate candidates who are pro-life without exceptions. I don’t know if that has ever happened before.”
Dr. Marc Pecha, a San Antonio physician who is sympathetic with Tea Party objectives, said he will be watching Texas races.
“Our local congressman is a Democrat and could lose his seat,” he said. He’s also watching Rand Paul in Kentucky “because he could be a source of fiscal reason in the out-of-control Senate.”
The three represent the coalition of three different forces in American politics: opposition to President Obama and his Democrats, pro-family hopes for the future of the Republicans and the insurgent power of the Tea Party movement.
The elections are destined to be read as a reaction to the two-year-old presidency of Barack Obama. Catholics might see the 2010 elections as validating the concerns they brought in 2008. When Obama faced Arizona Sen. John McCain in the race for president two years ago, 50 bishops issued warnings about voting the life issue. Many saw in Obama the most dangerous opponent of the right to life in the history of presidential politics.
With the approval level of Obama and congressional Democrats at a low, the time may have come to defang the president.
“Whether or not the GOP takes the House — and I think they will,” said McGurn, “the gains will mean Republicans will be able to block President Obama from doing what he wants.”
Denying Obama his congressional majorities could be an excellent fallback position, said Ruse. “Taking back the House would stop a lot of anti-life activity of this Congress and this administration,” said Ruse. “It could literally save lives. And the experts say taking back the House is a dead certainty.”
But blocking is different from advancing. “Even with a majority, however, they will likely not have enough to do what they want,” said McGurn, “meaning: to override a presidential veto.”
The fact is, the next election will define the Republican Party’s future as much as the Democrats’ future. The GOP hopes that it faces this year what it faced in 1994. That’s the year the Republicans took over control of both houses of Congress after riding a tidal wave of opposition to President Clinton’s tax increases and health-care reform attempt.
That year, the GOP unveiled its “Contract With America,” a political document laying out an agenda for the first 100 days of Congress which included a balanced budget requirement, a line-item veto for the president and welfare reform.
This year, Republicans are touting a “Pledge to America,” which commits the party not to particular legislation, but to various principles. These include the extension of President George W. Bush’s tax cuts — large families are alert to the fact that their generous per-child tax credit is set to be drastically reduced — and the repeal of health-care reform.
The pledge also includes language meant to show social-values voters the GOP’s good intentions: “We pledge to honor families, traditional marriage, life, and the private and faith-based organizations that form the core of our American values.”
Ruse said Catholics should be “moderately” pleased with the GOP pledge.
“Let’s face it: It’s an economic document. There is a reference to life and family, but it’s not like pro-lifers wrote it,” said Ruse. “Republicans have made a lot of promises over the years and still most of the heavy lifting has not been done by politicians but by regular folks out in the trenches.”
Pecha said, “The fact that the GOP even concerns itself with such an issue indicates a victory of sorts for pro-lifers.” But “unfortunately, under the last GOP administration and GOP-controlled Congress, no significant reduction in abortions occurred.”
McGurn defended the Republican record.
“The GOP has a long legacy on life issues. They are not always perfect and often not brave,” said McGurn. “But we should have learned from the last two years that it is far better than the alternative.”
Pro-lifers saw abortion questions come to the fore in the health-care debate. But one issue that hasn’t seemed to have a lot of traction, even after a California judge rebuked pro-family voters, is same-sex “marriage.”
Peter Wolfgang at the Family Institute of Connecticut in Hartford, said he thinks Republicans and conservative activists underestimate the power of social issues and refuse to use the advantage the issue gives them.
“Bush was re-elected on gay ‘marriage’ and then dropped the issue right after,” he said. “In 2008 Proposition 8 was the only thing conservatives won. Gay ‘marriage’ is so unpopular that even a president as radical as Obama has to pretend to be against it. But Judge [Vaughn] Walker overturns Prop. 8 and even conservatives like Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Ann Coulter go soft on the issue. It’s crazy. They’re running up the white flag on a winning issue.”
The Tea Party movement, named for the anti-tax fervor of the Revolutionary War-era Boston Tea Party, is a third political force this year. Tea Party activity has captured a lot of the passion that in other years fueled social-values voters. The movement began with local protests against the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and health-care reform. Intense debates at town hall meetings became popular YouTube hits.
In the 2010 primary season, candidates associated with the movement won key races, including U.S. Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, a Delaware Republican, and Sarah-Palin backed Senate candidate Joe Miller in Alaska.
Pecha, for one, is a fan of the movement.
“The Tea Party represents a diverse group of folks who believe we are financially enslaved to foreign interests and think we need fiscal prudence to survive,” he said. “Spending is out of control. We are bankrupt and the GOP may slow that down. However, the debt we have may be too great to ever repay.”
Pecha is like many voters who are passionate about both pro-life and fiscal issues.
McGurn said pro-family voters are not such an unusual fit with fiscal conservatives.
“Pro-family voters have the same interest as other voters: a government that does not spend beyond its means, defends us from those who mean us harm, and upholds our freedoms,” said McGurn.
In addition, the Tea Party movement and the pro-family movement tend to agree on constitutional questions. “On issues like abortion and same-sex ‘marriage,’ in a free society these are meant to be decided by the people and their representatives,” McGurn said. “Unfortunately, they are all too often imposed by judges. We need to fight that.”
In the end, Catholics have great reason to hope, said Wolfgang.
“Catholics in America suffer from a collective case of manic depression,” said Wolfgang. “Bush gets re-elected in 2004 by the values voters and we hear ‘It’s just a matter of time before we win the culture war; we’re the only ones having children etc.’ Obama wins in 2008 and we hear ‘It’s over; we’re doomed. See you in the re-education camps.’ That’s quite a mood swing in just one election cycle.”
Wolfgang said Catholics need a new Father Richard John Neuhaus, referring to the Catholic commentator who died in 2008.
“Neuhaus would’ve bucked us up with that JPII-style optimism,” he said, “as he did during the worst days of Clinton.”
Tom Hoopes writes from Atchison, Kansas.