Monday, November 21, 2005

What Bob Casey Means to Me

Thanks to this post by Scott Lemieux over at Lawyers, Guns and Money, I've been alerted to a recent article by Peter Boyer in the New Yorker on Bob Casey, Jr.'s campaign for the Senate in Pennsylvania against Republican senator Rick Santorum. I'm going to have to dig up a copy of the article, which I probably would have missed otherwise. Scott didn't think much of the piece though: he felt Boyer's treatment of the abortion issue amongst Democrats was, at best, facile, and downright credulous in the way he presented the complaints of Tim Roemer, a tone-deaf conservative Democrat who apparently thinks the reason he couldn't get any traction in his race against Howard Dean for the leadership of the DNC was because of his anti-abortion voting record, whereas the real reason is that Dean actually worked for it, meeting with local Democrats and building an organization instead of grandstanding. All that may be true--but I'm interested in the article anyway, because I'm fascinated by what a Casey-Santorum campaign could mean, and it'll perhaps help salve my annoyance at not living in Pennsylvania right now: there's no prospective senate race in America right now I'd be more interested in contributing to than that one.

From what I can tell from Scott's and others' summaries of the Boyer article, the central question is whether or not the Democratic base, all the big donors and activists, will be willing to support a "pro-life" (I hate that term, by the way) if that's what it'll take to get rid of Santorum. This kind of talk annoys Scott to no end; he has frequently insisted that Republican tolerance of "pro-choice" candidates and politicians is mere window-dressing, while at the same time pointing out that the number of Democrats who describe themselves as opposed to abortion and yet are somehow able to pass the "litmus test" supposedly enforced by the party's base is not insignificant. This is true--but it is also incomplete. I completely grant that the decision by the organizers of the Democratic national convention to refuse to allow Casey's father, the pro-life then-governor of Pennsylvania, to speak in 1992 has been blown far our of proportion; and that, in many ways, when it comes to simple (including religious) declarations of belief, the Democratic party today is often more tolerant and supportive of a diverse range of candidates than the Republicans. But of course the issue for social conservatives is not merely to keep the pro-life flag waving one way or another; it is, very simply, to discourage abortion. Here the tolerance of the Democrats ends (and rightly so, Scott would say). The reason Bob Casey excites people like myself is that he is no conservative, whatever that term means today; rather, he is a Democrat with a strong progressive record on trade and the minimum wage, public education, and Social Security, while also being a candidate who won't be pro-life the way Harry Reid, or for that matter John Kerry, are--that is, he is a candidate whose social conservatism just might not be retired to the backwater of personal belief, but instead will be taken as a piece of his religiously grounded progressivism.

Of course, such a hope is, for a great many secular liberals, one that would cut the heart out of the Democratic party if actually realized: as Michael Kinsley recently put it, Democrats like himself "believe that forcing a woman to go through an unwanted pregnancy and childbirth is the most extreme unjustified government intrusion on personal freedom short of sanctioning murder." Not a lot of room for compromise there, especially when the stakes regarding abortion have been judicially stacked in such an absolutist way, and majorities have developed accordingly. (As everyone familiar with the issue knows, two things can definitely be said about public opinion regarding abortion in the U.S.: 1) a consistent majority of voters oppose completely overturning Roe v. Wade, and 2) it is quite easy to get a majority of Americans to confess that they consider abortion to be "immoral" and in need of greater restrictions, depending on how you frame the question.) Nonetheless, "left traditionalists" like myself still exist, and still hold at the hope that, every once in a while, the Democrats will throw us a bone (given that the odds of the Republican party of Bush and Delay suddenly remembering social justice are vanishingly small). Perhaps Casey could be one such, and believe me, we'll take whatever we can get. If along the way our hoped-for candidate can take out an incumbent like Santorum, and thus perhaps incidentally make the point that civic compassion and family values still have to be defended and paid for, not just cheaply invoked, then all the better.

There isn't going to any sort of agreement between someone like Scott and myself on this particular issue, at least not without a lot of difficult debate, and perhaps not even then. For my part, I see Bob Casey's potential presence in the Senate as, perhaps, just possibly, a step towards making this debate a reality, rather than the Kabuki theater which Scott and others rightly observe that the Republican party constantly engages in. Is bringing on that debate so important to me that I'd vote any self-described conservative into office? By no means; there is too much that could be lost in the meantime. But, leaving aside the disagreement between myself and others over the supposed identity between abortion rights and all the other elements of the progressive agenda, I see no reason to think that Casey's (as yet not-fully elaborated) opposition to abortion rights could usher in, should he be elected, a wholesale progressive retreat. Scott, unsurprisingly, isn't sure; he points to the fact that Casey has been silent about Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court, and wonders how "a strong union man could even consider advocating his confirmation." He's got a point--but again, his point is incomplete. The hostility Alito has shown in the past to most kinds of legislatively-created rights and protections should obviously be worrying to anyone with even the smallest populist bone in their body; but as Jacob Levy pointed out in a comment in a Crooked Timber thread addressing the above-linked article, it's not as though those (like myself) who are terrified of the "Constitution-in-Exile" movement that Alito may well represent have explained exactly where they think the boundaries of proper legislative authority ought to rest either. Casey's silence regarding Alito, if it isn't just canny campaign politics, may represent nothing more than a general faith that socially responsible reforms need not come to an abrupt end even if the Supreme Court does become even more unfriendly to progressive politics than it is today--in fact, such an occurance might turn out to be a helpful step in getting Democrats to take popular, grass-roots legislation more seriously. Of course, this brings up one of Scott's other bete noires: the notion that progressives are better off without relying on the judiciary, with the enormous hostility and controversy engendered by Roe v. Wade as exhibit number one. He's argued with folks like Nathan Newman about this endlessly; I haven't a clear opinion one way or another. Still, any position whose advocates include Bill Galston and Jeremy Waldron is one I take seriously--at least, seriously enough to hope Bob Casey, and all that I think and hope he may mean, all the luck (and votes) in the world come 2006.

1 comment:

Hellmut said...

Interesting post, Russell.

The way to deal with this issue is to create options for women. Most women will not have willy nilly abortions. Once one permits abortion in the case of rape, prohibition of abortion cannot possibly work. Everyone will use the loophole.

Create circumstances where women can take care of themselves and their children and there will be less abortions. That is where the middle ground is: more economic justice leads to less abortions. 

Posted by Hellmut Lotz