EPPC Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies George Weigel was recently interviewed on the 2008 U.S. election by the Italian newspaper, Avvenire. Excerpts from the interview appeared in the July 13 issue of Avvenire; the full text of the interview follows.
AVVENIRE: America is heading for the elections in a weak economic situation: higher unemployment rates, higher gas prices, the subprime mortgage and housing crisis, and so on. How much do these things affect U.S. voters? And how much do these problems affect the way of life of the American people?
WEIGEL: The odd thing about the polling data is that, while most people think “the economy” is in difficult circumstances, they think they’re doing just fine, personally. I attribute this “dis-connect” — things are terrible but I’m doing just fine, thank you — to seven years of mainstream media hysteria-mongering, which tends to shape (or perhaps better, mis-shape) people’s views of the large picture. The fundamentals of the American economy are sound. There is a credit crunch, which affects the housing markets, and there’s a lot of pressure from rising energy costs. But there’s nothing here that can’t be fixed.
AVVENIRE: Food stamp requests have been increasing for two years and the cost of gas, fruits, vegetables, corn are higher. These are just examples of the problems American middle class (and not just it) have been facing. Do you think the American people are still optimistic about the future? Or have they lost trust in the ability of the country to solve its problems and make things get better?
WEIGEL: I very much doubt that the American people have lost confidence in their capacity to do what needs to be done to built better futures. What they have lost confidence in is the Congress, and with good reason — Congress is perhaps the most dysfunctonal major institution in American life. Curiously, though, most incumbent congressmen will likely be re-elected. (Permit me to add, as an aside, that European reporting on American life would lead the proverbial “man from Mars” to think that the United States was a Third World country. The better way to measure the reality of contemporary American life, including economic life, is by immigration, legal and illegal. Assuming people aren’t stupid, people don’t try every means possible to move to a losing proposition.)
AVVENIRE: Election 2004 was played out, above all, on national security issues. Four years later, is the economy the key issue? Usually American voters lean toward Democratic Party when the economy is weak. Why?
WEIGEL: In fact, the 2004 election was decided by a half-million evangelical voters in Ohio who registered to vote in order to vote in defense of traditional marriage — and who also voted for President Bush, who thereby carried Ohio and the election. Absent that issue, President John Kerry would be running for a second term. Americans turned to a Republican, Ronald Reagan, when a Democrat, Jimmy Carter, had made a mess of both the economy and U.S. foreign policy. The Democratic Party does tend to be more interventionist in economic matters, which may attract some voters who think that government is the answer to economic problems; it usually isn’t, but there are still people who think that way. There’s also a lot of what I call “tribal” or “genetic’ Democratic voting in what my friend Maggie Gallagher describes as the “Decadent Catholic Corridor” — the Northeast, Illinois, and Michigan, where “Catholic = trade union = Democrat.” Reagan’s ability to attract these voters created the Republican coalition that effectively set the U.S. political agenda from 1981 until 2006. It’s also worth noting that a pro-abortion Democrat, John Kerry, carried every state in which there was a residential American cardinal in 2004.
AVVENIRE: The recent gun rights verdict by Supreme Court has given prominence to a debate on the right to keep and bear arms. It’s an argument very far from European mentality, but close to the way many Americans think of the roots and the values of their country. Are these values still very strong and shared by most of the people?
WEIGEL: The real issue with the Supreme Court — whether the case at hand has to do with the right to own firearms, or Guantanamo, or abortion — is whether the Court is going to interpret the law or make the law. The judicial usurpation of politics — judges replacing legislators as the key decision-makers — is a very serious problem in Europe, Canada, and Israel, as well as in the United States.
AVVENIRE: Libertarians and many conservatives blame President Bush for having enlarged the Government: more federal programs, spending increases, etc. Not even Lyndon Johnson, they say, was such a big spender as Bush. According to John Boaz (Cato Institute), conservatives today are ready to accept a major role of the government for welfare, economy, civil rights. Do you think conservative movement is really changing? And which kind of G.O.P. does Sen. McCain have in mind?
WEIGEL: I think McCain is essentially a Reagan Republican, with a few eccentricities. I don’t agree with him on campaign finance “reform,” for instance, which seems to me an undue governmental interference with political speech. His global warming alarms strike me as overwrought. Yet on two great country-dividing issues — the right-to-life, and reining in an out-of-control Supreme Court — there is still considerable strength in the conservative coalition. The dividing issue within that coalition is immigration reform. But as my colleague Peter Wehner argues in the current issue of COMMENTARY, the outlines of a consensus position are coming into sight on that question, too.
AVVENIRE: The New York Times wrote that Obama must choose to be like Reagan (a big agent of change) or Clinton (who made many promises during the campaign, but led as a moderate). Obama built a campaign courting liberals and progressives on the economy issue. But after clinching the nomination he started to court independent and moderate Democrats. Do you have an idea which face of Obama will prevail? Do you think he’s really someone totally “new” for American politics?
WEIGEL: My reading of Senator Obama’s record is that he is a genuine leftist: not a pragmatic liberal, like Clinton, but a true man of the left, in the European sense of the term. And that’s probably why he’s so popular in European circles. On abortion, though, he is not simply a leftist, but a radical: in the Illinois state legislature, he led the fight against a partial-birth abortion ban, and against a law that would have given legal protection to infants who survive a late-term abortion. From the latter, one would have to include that Senator Obama thinks a women has a right, not only to an abortion, but to a dead baby. This is a position far, far to the left of the American mainstream. Obama’s instincts in foreign affairs are also leftist: he does not seem to understand that there are people who hate the West and who are determined to do it harm for their own reasons, not because of anything the West has putatively done for them.
AVVENIRE: On July 2007 a Los Angeles Times poll suggested that two-thirds of the American people would accept a black president. How much will race influence the presidential race? And will the southern states put a “veto” on an African-American in the White House?
WEIGEL: I think the overwhelming majority of Americans want to get the issue of race behind the country, once and for all, and in that sense would welcome an African-American president as a means to that end. The presidential election will be decided on issues, not race, and if Obama loses, it will be because America is a center-right country and he’s a leftist candidate. Of course, I fully expect most of the European media to declare that an Obama defeat was the result of residual racism; but that will be ignorance, not knowledge, speaking. By any social, economic, cultural, or political measure, the U.S. is the most racially egalitarian society on the planet. Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Tiger Woods, and Michael Jordan wouldn’t have become multi-millionaires in a racist country.
AVVENIRE: Hispanics are now 47 million, about 1/5 of the total global US population. Most of them are Catholics. How will Latinos change America?
WEIGEL: Good question. Given their generally conservative/traditional family values, they ought to become part of a revitalized conservative/Republican coalition; but that will depend in large part on whether a consensus on immigration reform acceptable to reasonable Hispanics can be built inside the Republican coalition. It would be a very big mistake, in my view, if Hispanics were to allow themselves to become the taken-for-granted pawns of the Democratic Party, as too many African-Americans have done. That’s the political side of the question. Culturally, Hispanics ought to bring the kind of freshness to the American cultural “mix” that others have brought in the past.
AVVENIRE: Religion has always had a role in U.S. elections. Kennedy was once considered too Catholic to get elected. And Kerry was labeled as a too shy a Catholic to get elected. Now we have a candidate, Obama, who quotes the Bible and talks about faith as a guide for his life. And a Republican very reluctant to throw religion and his faith in the “arena.” Do you think Obama will be able to get back some “religious” votes from GOP?
WEIGEL: It’s a good thing that Obama has tried to restore a respect for religious conviction in the Democratic Party. The question for the electorate, though, is the content of that conviction. Obama’s ideological leftism is buttressed by the kind of liberation theology preached by his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. It’s not easy to see how voters from the so-called “Religious Right’ will be attracted to that message.
AVVENIRE: In 2004, Bush got 52% of catholic votes. During the Democratic primaries, Sen. Clinton won a Catholic majority almost everywhere. Do you think Barack Obama will be able to conquer his slice of Catholic voters? And on which issues should he focus to get them to the polls to support him?
WEIGEL: I don’t see how Obama gets the votes of serious Catholics without doing a major reversal on abortion. And that seems unlikely for many reasons. As for not-so-serious Catholics, they’ll make their judgments on other criteria.
AVVENIRE: John McCain has what many analyst describe as an “evangelical problem.” Do you think he will be able to close the gap with influential evangelical leaders after the quarrels of last year?
WEIGEL: Yes. When the real campaign starts in the Fall, and the nature of the ideological choice in this election is clarified, most evangelicals will see who best represents their convictions of what America is and should be.
AVVENIRE: The gay marriage debate will not have the same impact it had in 2004, with 11 states were holding referendums to ban same-sex marriage. But the California and New York decisions to allow or recognize same-sex marriage could shift perspective. Do you think we’ll have a debate on this? Or will the economy and gas prices exclude other issues from the debate?
WEIGEL: McCain has to make the judicial usurpation of the marriage issue — and other important questions — a major factor in the campaign. If he does, he’ll win.
AVVENIRE: George W. Bush made the cause of spreading democracy a leading element of his foreign policy. Right or wrong, don’t you think that after Iraq war American people would like to have a minor role in the world? Don’t you think that, after Bush idealism, the American people will ask for a turn toward Realpolitik, and above all toward a strict definition of national interest?
WEIGEL: No, because that’s not who the American people are. I do wish Europeans would look at what has been going on in Iraq the last few months: still major problems, but an enormous amount of progress. The United States learns from its mistakes; I wish the E.U. did! If McCain frames the issue correctly — as one of unescapable American leadership in a dangerous world — he’ll rally the country to its duty.
AVVENIRE: A view on Bush presidency: what is his heritage? How has American changed during these 8 years?
WEIGEL: I expect George W. Bush’s presidency will be more highly regarded in twenty years than it is today. On the largest questions, he was right, and he stuck to his convictions without regard for vicious criticism; he has been, for example, the strongest pro-life president in history. His greatest failing, I think, was in not explaining adequately, to the country or the world, what the United States was doing, and why.