Courage and Conviction: The Obama Difference

The health care bill that passed Congress was terrible. It funded abortion. The executive order that accompanied it was a temporary fig leaf at best. The bill created a bureaucratic mess. It was shoved down the throat of an unwilling public. The process that passed it was far from the transparency President Obama promised, and it often stank of pork-barrel bribery. And the bill was signed by the President when it was 36 hours old, though Obama promised he would always wait for five days of public review.

But it showed the difference that too often exists between pro-family and anti-family legislators: The bill’s backers had the courage of their convictions. They insisted on what they thought was the right thing to do (yes, with the mixed motives all human beings almost always have) and did it, despite the pain.

Republicans sometimes have the courage of their convictions: When it came to war decisions, President Bush certainly did. He insisted on the Iraq surge against public opposition, and even Obama eventually admitted he was right.

But the Democrats in general and Obama in particular did with the health care vote what Republicans rarely do: They stayed true to their principles despite angry shouts from their left flank and dark public opinion polls.

Will they pay a hefty price for it? Almost certainly. But they all knew that. That they did this anyway is breathtaking. It’s not how the political game is usually played. Politicians aren’t supposed to push anything that’s not a painless foregone conclusion.

Politicians aren’t supposed to be willing to risk failure. Politicians are supposed to be Clintons: Their genius is in keeping their coalition together while they cave.

Obama has shown he’s willing to risk failure on several occasions; oddly enough, twice in Copenhagen where he pleaded for the Olympic committee to put the games in Chicago, and got trounced, and where he went to try to unite the nations around a global warming treaty, and leapt into a quagmire.

Yesterday, Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann met with senior students and professors from the Theology and Philosophy departments here at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. His assigned reading was John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech to the Houston Ministerial Association and Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput’s remarks to Houston Baptists from earlier this month assessing that speech — in which Kennedy pulled a Clinton.

Archbishop Naumann told the seniors that bishops and lay people have different roles. “Politicians have usurped the role of teacher” in many cases lately, he said. A bishop’s role is “to protect the deposit of the faith.” For the whole system to work, bishops “need committed Catholics who will take leadership roles within society.”

A lively discussion ensued. Some thought a tactical retreat from society was necessary. Others pressed for a direct confrontation — not as angry opponents but as “happy warriors” confident in the faith.

There was some discussion that the opposition was too overwhelming; the public couldn’t hear our message; we might as well not even try, or at least aim at an easier target. That’s precisely the position Obama and the Democrats found themselves in two weeks ago. Everyone hated their health care reform bill and assumed they would give up that fight. Their response was to push forward. They had the courage of their convictions, and they won, big.

As I suggested last night: Perhaps in addition to praying for vocations to the priesthood and religious life, we should start a prayer campaign for political vocations in the model of St. Thomas More: Men and women who have formed their consciences with the Church, and who, when the chips are down, will have the same audacity to do what they know is right. Sometimes, they will lose. But, by uniting their convictions to the truth, we can be confident that, ultimately, they will win far greater victories for the culture of life than the temporary victories of the culture of death.