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Rule Changes

John McCain entered last week still buoyed by a sizeable post-convention “bounce,” nearly all of which was attributable to his selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. The Obama camp went into a tailspin. Its much-ballyhooed mantra that their man was the anointed agent of change suddenly seemed hollow, dubious, and uninspiring. Almost overnight, the GOP ticket stole that theme, or at least enough of it to make its brand of change a plausible alternative. Doubts that many people had entertained about McCain before the GOP convention were displaced by renewed interest. Among Republican stalwarts, earlier reservations turned to enthusiasm; even more striking, a significant number of independents trekked over to the McCain side of the polls.

The Democrats were, to put it mildly, astonished by this turn of events. Obama’s own post-convention, six-point bounce abruptly vaporized and, according to some polls, McCain actually pulled ahead by as much as four points. Never mind that the spread in either case was within or close to the margin of error; the fact remains that the net swing from Obama to McCain was significant, demonstrating that the Democrat’s hold on the public imagination had only transient purchase.

In stunned disbelief, Democrats resorted to vitriolic personal attack. Politics ain’t beanbag, as the old saying goes, but the vicious rhetoric that spewed forth from outraged feminists and other janissaries of the Obama camp surely set a new record for campaign nastiness. There seemed to be some sort of competition among the sisterhood for the title of junk-yard dog. Just when you thought the previous day’s affront had reached a new low in vilification, the next day’s venomous outpouring would outdo it. Perhaps the all-time record was set by the Democratic National Committeewoman from South Carolina, who said that Palin’s only apparent qualification for office was that she never had an abortion.

All of this backfired, big time, and not only (as might be expected) among red-state Palin fans; it backfired as well among the public at large, and especially among women. That isn’t the way things were supposed to happen. Under the tyrannical reign of feminist censors, which has held sway for much of the past three decades, only women and subservient male acolytes were permitted to talk about abortion, and then mostly in favorable terms. Anyone who violated this rule could expect nasty attacks from advocates of legal abortion, or sharp questioning from their supporters in the mainstream media. That is why major political figures in both parties, with occasional exceptions, have generally avoided any detailed discussion of the subject. Like the rhinoceros in the living room, abortion was unavoidably omnipresent; it was just not to be spoken of in polite company, except, as I say, in generally favorable terms.

Prominent Catholic politicians – e.g., Kerry, Biden, Cuomo, Biden, Pelosi, and almost anyone named Kennedy – have been exceptionally, not to say disgracefully, cooperative in this endeavor. One tack has been to take refuge behind the “seamless garment” veil. Abortion was only one of many important elements in Catholic social teaching, etc., whence it was supposed to follow that if you voted, say, to increase foreign aid to Africa you were somehow exempted from having to oppose Roe v. Wade. A second and related tack invariably produced endless variations on the “I’m personally opposed to abortion, but…” theme. Among many voters and, sorrowfully, too many bishops, these ploys have for nearly thirty years effectively produced the political equivalent of a silent apostolic benediction.

In this presidential year, the rules have changed for two reasons. On the political level, the arrival of Sarah Palin tapped into a deep pool of sentiment that never belonged to the feminists but, apart from active pro-lifers, never managed to express itself. Without having to say much about abortion, Governor Palin has by her courageous example as wife and mother given voice to many women who, if they do not exactly share her views, find them far more compatible with their own than the dogmas of the feminist establishment. In a word, Palin has almost overnight made the pro-life position politically respectable in ways it has never been before.

The second reason is more important. In this year, for the first time in living memory, a sizeable number of bishops and archbishops have taken the gloves off. Appearing a week apart on Meet The Press, Speaker Pelosi and Senator Biden invoked the by now standard Catholic politician’s dodge on the abortion question. No doubt they expected the usual silent benediction. What they got instead was a full-court defense of the natural law and Catholic doctrine and, for all the rhetorical diplomacy of the episcopal statements, a very public chastisement. That is something new, and whatever this year’s election outcome, it is not likely to disappear.


Michael Uhlmann served in the Reagan White House and taught American politics at the Claremont Graduate University.