The Democrats’ Purgatory

Hillary Clinton said last night that the road to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue leads through Pennsylvania. But, for the next few weeks, the road from Pennsylvania leads to electoral purgatory. Clinton can’t win the nomination unless she so bloodies Barack Obama that the super-delegates (and the voters in North Carolina, Indiana, and the few remaining states) conclude there is no way he can win in November. Such an effort is bound to so alienate the first-time voters who have flocked to Obama, to say nothing of African-Americans, that there is no way Clinton can win in November. Super-delegates, many of whom will also be on the ballot in November, can’t win their elections without the support of blacks either, which largely explains why they are going to break for Obama unless he implodes. A front page story in this morning’s Washington Post asks whether Obama should stay with the more negative, attack-style he tried in Pennsylvania or return to the more uplifting, hope-filled message that characterized his campaign previously. This is an easy call. Obama needs to be Obama. He can respond to attacks, he can deflect punches and even counter-punch a bit, but he needs to keep his eye on the need to unite the party for November, stop the attacks, and, most importantly, be the embodiment of the kind of changed politics that is the rationale for his candidacy. And, he needs to figure out how to appeal to Catholics. Obama beat Clinton among Protestants in Pennsylvania by 53%-47% but she beat him among Catholics by a whopping 69%-31%. Part of the answer to this wide differential has to do with the dearth of black Catholics. But, when Obama’s self-inflicted wound of his remarks about bitter rural voters gave Clinton the chance to charge Obama with being an elitist, it was a charge that resonated especially with ethnic Catholics. Campaign strategists, who know as much about religious history as they do about nuclear physics, may not recall that Catholics were once barred from certain elite schools, from many elite law firms, and from the most elite neighborhoods. Catholics remember that. They hate elitism. Secular friends sometimes criticize the Catholic Church when it spends millions of dollars on a new church or a new cathedral. "You could use that money to help the poor," they say. But, building a cathedral in which all can pray, poor and rich alike, is helping the poor. They, too, are entitled to appreciate the wonder of God, the beauty of the liturgy, the divine spark within the human heart that urges us to pray. These secular critics remind me of the grumblers who chastised Jesus for letting a woman in the Gospel bathe his feet with expensive perfumes. So, even Catholic worship is anti-elitist. Obama needs to reach out to Catholics. He announced a roster of Catholic advisors, none of whom were known to the average person in the pew. It was astonishing that in the week Pope Benedict was here and dominating the news, I did not once here Obama invoke the pontiff’s words or wisdom. The twin goals outlined here – returning to his optimistic, hope-filled self and reaching out to Catholics – go hand-in-hand. He needs to point to a less trivial, less poll-driven, less divisive style of politics not only because it worked better for him. It is also the right thing to do. And, religiously motivated voters respond to politicians who do the right thing. They don’t like purgatory anymore than he does. Michael Sean Winters
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