I am going to try my hand at some political prognosticating. Not that I have reason to think I am any good at it. Quite the contrary. I never thought the country would elect Bill Clinton once it became common knowledge that he was an aging peacenik with a fondness for Little Rock's women-about-town. And I thought those legendarily street-wise New Yorkers would laugh Hillary off the stage when she ran for senator. Oh, well.
But I have heard that stock pickers and sports analysts believe there is little to lose from making a bad call; that you can pat yourself on the back and sell your newsletters on the basis of one good pick popping up in a sea of errors. So here goes: John Edwards will be the next President of the United States, and the Catholic vote will play a key role in his victory.
What leads me to this conclusion? There is no one thing that I can point to. It is more a convergence of a number of factors. For starters, there is the "anyone-but-Hillary" issue. It is a reality. I know the logic that Hillary's backers apply to make the case for her candidacy: that she starts out with all the blue states that voted for John Kerry and Al Gore in her column. Which means that all she has to do is pick up the women's vote in one or two of the red states that went for George W. Bush to carry the day. It is not hard, for example, to picture Hillary carrying Florida and Ohio.
Fair enough. But the last poll I saw shows Hillary with a 44% unfavorable vote, 44% of likely voters who say they will never vote for her. That is a big nut to crack. With this group "never" means never. Democratic Party primary voters understand the implications. One little stumble by her — or her husband — and it could be curtains. Edwards doesn't have this problem. He too can be presumed to carry all the blue states that went for Gore and Kerry, but he does not start out with Hillary's unfavorable poll numbers. It is easy to picture him, as a Southerner, carrying two, maybe three, Southern states, perhaps Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina. The man is adept at posturing as a "good old boy" who made it good. That sells in the South.
But won't the voters see through that façade when they learn of the fortune he and his wife have made as trial lawyers, which they have not been embarrassed to spend on a palatial home near Chapel Hill? I don't think so. The voters did not turn on the Kennedys and the Bushes because of their great wealth — and Edwards and his wife earned the money themselves. It matters little that it was earned attacking insurance companies. That can be pictured as their doing battle for the little guys of the world against corporate fat cats.
Will his "good old boy" image be able to stand against the caricaturing of him as a pretty boy — the "Breck Girl" in the words of Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham? I think it will. The last four years have added some maturity to Edwards's appearance, and he carries himself these days with a feistiness that is anything but soft. My view of this could change, though, if someone digs up the old tape of Edwards combing his hair with the makeup artist before a television interview back during the 2004 election campaign. (The people on Hillary's team just might be the ones to do that. Watch: if Edwards starts to climb in the polls, it will be all over the talk shows.)
Have you ever seen the tape I am talking about? It is hard to believe. When I saw if for the first time I thought it was a computerized parody of the man put together by a Republican hit squad. It is that bad. It is obvious that Edwards must fuss a bit with that pompadour of his, but the tape shows him patting and tucking and puffing it up over and over and over, turning his head to check its contours from every angle imaginable. I can't imagine Paris Hilton fretting more over her hairdo. Colbert, Leno and Letterman would be able to devastate Edwards with it, if they wanted to. (If you want to check it out, go to politicalhumor.about.com/od/multimedia/v/edwardshair.htm.)
What about Edwards' flip-flop on Iraq? It is true that he voted to authorize the attack when he was a senator. But for well over a year now he has stated unequivocally that he regrets that vote and that he was wrong to give Bush the authorization to invade. He took this stand long before Bush's poll numbers plummeted. Not so Hillary. Democratic activists suspect Hillary of political opportunism, of hedging her bets just in case the war in Iraq turned in our favor.
Where does the Catholic vote come into play in all this? With Edwards' populist "Two America's" emphasis on the divide between this country's rich and poor. The man is throwing caution to the wind on the economic issues, openly proclaiming his intention to greatly increase domestic spending and expand the government's role in the economy, even if it requires an increase in taxes. He is calling for universal health care and increased spending on education and the infrastructure, especially in New Orleans. He sounds like Pat Buchanan on corporate greed and the need to protect American workers from the threat of underpaid Third World workers.
All of this can be packaged as the kind of government activism called for in the papal encyclicals to help the disadvantaged and working poor. It is a package that can be sold. It has been my experience that the main reason blue collar Catholics recoil from big government programs is that they are usually promoted by people like those Bill Clinton gathered around him — people like Hillary, Robert Reich, Donna Shalala, and Marian Wright Edelman, who, fairly or not, evoke images of secular left-wing busybodies and utopians. Edwards has a different image. He is no aging hippy. He is a Southern Baptist. His roots are in a North Carolina mill town, not Greenwich Village coffee shops and anti-war sit-ins. He worked his way through North Carolina State University, the first male in his family to attend college. He can say same things as the old Clinton team, but with a populist air that was always beyond the Clinton team's reach.
What about his position on abortion and the homosexual agenda? For all practical purposes, from a Catholic point of view he is no better on these matters than Hillary. But the topic at hand is Edwards' electability. It strikes me that he will not lose as many Catholic voters as most liberal Democrats will on these issues. Edwards is unequivocally "pro-choice," but because of his Baptist background, he is able to convey the impression that he is seriously anguished over what happens during an abortion; that when says he wants to keep "abortion legal but rare," he means it.
Hillary cannot do that. She is too associated with the women's movement's zeal on abortion rights. Listen carefully the next time this topic comes up with her. Even if she is being asked about partial birth abortion, her responses will be curt and formulaic, giving the impression that her objective is to close the debate, as if enlightened people no longer think this issue worth discussing.
Likewise on homosexual marriage. Edwards' position is that, while he favors "gay civil unions," he "is not there yet" on homosexual marriage. He explains that his religious background makes it hard for him to take such a step, but that he is "considering his position." Pretty clever, no? He plays up his religious background to appeal to working class voters with traditional values, while at the same time hinting to liberal Democrats committed to homosexual rights that he is leaning toward coming around to their position. Disingenuous? Maybe. Probably. But Edwards will be able to make this pitch; Hillary cannot.
A final point: Before long, Democratic Party big wigs and savvy primary voters are going to realize that there are a lot of people who voted for Ronald Reagan, who will never vote for Hillary Clinton but who would consider voting for Edwards. Does that include me? Nope. Not a chance. But I will say that the thought of Edwards being elected does not make my stomach churn the way it does when I picture Hillary and spouse walking down Pennsylvania Avenue in early January 2009. And I bet that I am not the only one who would say that.