Jim Antle makes some good points in response to my remarks on Kmiec, and Ross still views Kmiec’s arguments with “contempt,” and both use a similar hypothetical case to explain what is wrong with Kmiec’s arguments. This is the hypothetical boiled down to its essentials: imagine how antiwar Americans would view a prominent antiwar figure if he actively pushed for McCain’s election as the more antiwar alternative of the two major candidates, and then you’ll understand why pro-lifers have such a low opinion of Prof. Kmiec, who did make a pro-life case for Obama more or less the central part of his argument.
Now we know that some significant percentage of people who oppose the war voted for McCain in the primaries and in the general election. This has always baffled me, but this is what they did, just as millions of (nominally?) pro-life Democrats and independents lined up behind Obama. Indeed, for McCain to receive 46% of the vote, he must have received millions of votes from war opponents. Evidently, they are either not very interested in ending the war or they actually do believe that McCain would be better able to bring it to some kind of successful, or at least non-calamitous, conclusion. For the most part, when these millions vote in what seems to antiwar activists and bloggers to be the objectively wrong way we put it down to a combination of partisanship and ignorance, but I don’t think we expend a lot of energy denouncing them. However, if a prominent antiwar activist or politician crossed party lines to endorse McCain and made some “only McCain can end the war” argument, he probably would be ridiculed in the same way. Here’s the interesting question: should he be ridiculed in such a fashion?
Obviously, I think the logic of the “only Nixon” argument is deeply flawed, since it puts the hard-liners who have often been wrong on policy in the past in charge of reforming the policy, but it does seem to have some grounding in political reality. Politicians who are perceived to “lack credibility” on national security according to conventional definitions (i.e., they have been reluctant to support starting and continuing at least one war) do have a harder time making significant changes in policy, while those who supposedly have credibility (i.e., they are warmongers) can bring along other members of their party to support a significant change more effectively if they are interested in making that change. Following the bizarre “only Nixon” logic, Obama would have unimpeachable pro-choice credentials that would make it politically feasible for him to pursue a pro-life direction, but there is clearly no reason to expect him to be willing do that.
Of course, it’s that willingness to change policy that makes all the difference, which is why it seems so far-fetched to expect that President McCain would withdraw from Iraq or President Obama would adopt pro-life Democratic proposals. To believe this about McCain, you would have to ignore that his hawkishness is just about the only thing that kept his partisans behind him as it was. To believe this about Obama, you have to imagine that he will suddenly acquire enthusiasm for challenging entrenched feminist and pro-choice interest groups when he has never shown much desire to challenge entrenched groups in his party or outside of it. Put another way, I can imagine a pro-life case being made for a pro-choice Democratic politician that might be minimally credible if that politician had demonstrated in his record some consistent effort at collaborating with pro-lifers in his party. When such a politician is no longer a creature of myth, perhaps we will hear that argument, but it is fair to say that Obama does not and never has fit the description.
Kmiec’s critique of the GOP was more wide-ranging than simply making a pro-life case from the beginning (which was complicated by the reality that the candidate he had supported in the primaries, Romney, did not hold many of the same views), but as the election wore on he did tend to focus more on abortion to the exclusion of other issues, giving the impression that he was claiming that single-issue pro-life voters ought to prefer Obama. In other words, one major problem was that Kmiec attempted to do too much. He ended up not only offering an argument for why a pro-life Catholic conservative could permit himself to support Obama in spite of Obama’s atrocious record on abortion on account of Obama’s other positions on Iraq and torture, which might have been a somewhat more defensible position, but strained (and, frankly, failed) to show that Obama would be more receptive to pro-life Democratic ideas and would be interested in reducing the number of abortions. Indeed, at one point he went so far as to praise the purported minimalism of Souter and Breyer–that was obviously never going to persuade pro-life conservatives, but then I suppose he was not trying to persuade them so much as he was trying to make Obama seem reasonable and pragmatic. He might have done better simply to say that Obama is reasonable and pragmatic, which even many of his critics would be willing to grant after a fashion.
In his policy arguments regarding Obama and abortion, I think Kmiec was wrong, because I don’t think a positive conservative case on policy can be made for Obama, and certainly not when it comes to abortion. Still, it is remarkable that while most Obamacons are chastised for not using policy arguments in favor of the candidate they are endorsing, relying instead as they do on claims about his temperament, judgement and intelligence, Kmiec seems to be singled out for special derision because he did at least attempt to provide a substantive argument for his choice. In my view, all conservative policy arguments for Obama are fundamentally flawed. Obamacons are prone to accept Obama’s nods to the right at face value, failing to see that these are head fakes designed to throw the opposition off balance. It is this basic (mistaken) willingness to give Obama the benefit of the doubt that makes one an Obamacon in the first place. When pro-life Obamacons hear him say that there is a moral dimension to abortion, they feel reassured that he is not cavalier about the issue, but they do not notice how utterly incompatible his fully pro-abortion record is with this supposed seriousness. That said, is Kmiec’s position any more genuinely contemptible than the unfounded libertarian expectation that Obama will respect civil liberties and constitutional limits on the executive or the rather fanciful progressive (and sometime conservative) hope that Obama is not every bit as hawkish on, say, Iran as he claims to be? The problem seems to be that Kmiec went to the trouble of providing an argument for his endorsement that did not fall back on vague and fairly subjective assessments of a politician’s character.
If the main complaint is that he has misrepresented Obama’s record and provided an unduly optimistic assessment of what pro-lifers should expect from him, he is in the same boat with every person, conservative or otherwise, who has made unfounded and baseless claims that Obama’s nomination and election somehow represent a break with Democratic identity politics, or that he will not support race-based affirmation, or that he will fight teachers’ unions on merit pay. There is some rhetorical nod to which believers in all of these propositions can point, and they all misrepresent what Obama actually believes because this is exactly what Obama’s rhetorical nods were designed to encourage them to do. The serious mistake all these people have made is not that they have run with these rhetorical nods to create elaborate, implausible arguments presenting Obama as a very different kind of Democrat, but that they are willing to be bought off by empty lip service from another politician. It is as if someone took Mr. Bush seriously when he said that he believes going to war is always a last resort when the evidence clearly shows otherwise.
Why spend all this time and energy considering Kmiec’s case? For the same reason that I think other Obamacon defections need to be understood more than they need to be denounced: virtually every conservative endorsement of Obama is rooted in some failure of the GOP and/or the conservative movement, and Kmiec’s is no different. Endorsing Obama is a protest, an extreme protest perhaps, but a protest all the same against the failures of the GOP. In addition to his other objections, his argument for Obama is an expression of his loss of confidence in the pro-life political strategy of the last thirty years with its nearly monomaniacal focus on Court appointments. Arguably, this strategy has been shown to be bankrupt ever since Casey, but pro-lifers have not given up on it. Recognizing the bankruptcy of this approach, Kmiec proposed an alternative, and I agree that the alternative wasn’t appealing, but pro-life conservatives would benefit from considering how futile and bankrupt this strategy has been that it could not retain the support of Prof. Kmiec.
After nearly thirty years of support, what do pro-lifers have to show for their continued support for the GOP? Not very much. Does it make sense to back the other party, where there is even less chance of pro-life concerns being taken seriously? No, not really. Then again, how else do pro-lifers practically express their frustration with what seems to be a futile, fruitless political strategy? It is true that they could stay home or vote third party, and obviously no one compels pro-lifers to be a public advocate for a pro-choice candidate. Even so, if the GOP deserves to be held accountable for contradicting the principles and betraying the interests of core constituencies in other areas, does it not also deserve to be held accountable for its absolute failure to do anything for one of its largest, most loyal constituencies for at least the last twelve years? For almost the entire period that the GOP was in the majority in Congress, and during the whole of unified government under Mr. Bush pro-lifers received next to nothing in terms of action on their behalf (and, no, I don’t think the Court appointments count for very much, especially when the second had to be extracted from Mr. Bush with great difficulty). On ESCR, McCain was indistinguishable from Obama, and, as Jim correctly notes, both were to the left of a Bush administration position that was already offensive to many pro-lifers. As unpersuasive as Kmiec’s arguments were, the particularly strong derision heaped on Kmiec will make the GOP leadership think that it needs to be only slightly less objectionable than the opposition to garner pro-lifers’ unswerving support and ensure their willingness to enforce futile party loyalty against dissenters. Apparently, the leadership will be right in thinking this, which all but guarantees that pro-lifers will continue to be taken for granted, their priorities ignored and their issues paid ever-decreasing lip service in some future Republican administration many years from now.