What Romney Needs to Say to Catholics in the Debate

Tonight’s presidential debate matters. The impressiosn viewers take away of Obama and Romney could seal the election for one of them.

This will not be the first time a debate has been crucial to an election outcome. In 1960, the young and little known John F. Kennedy came across as Vice President Richard Nixon’s equal in their first matchup. Kennedy’s performance made the difference in a race that he won by a popular vote margin of only 0.17 percent.

During the October 1976 presidential debate, President Gerald Ford blundered discussing the Helsinki accords, which legalized Soviet control of the Captive Nations, when he said “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and never will be under a Ford administration.”  The defection from the Republican ticket of angry Eastern European Catholics cost Ford the election.

Four years later, Ronald Reagan turned the tide in his favor when he came across as a nice guy who good naturedly dismissed President Carter’s verbal attacks by saying, “There you go again.”

Historically, national debates have favored the challenger. Romney could, however, lose that advantage if he gets caught off-guard by a trick question (particularly one on social issues) and looks like a deer caught in the headlights.

Mitt Romney should have no problems handling economic and fiscal issues. All he has to do is point out that Obama failed to deliver on his promises: The $860 billion of borrowed stimulus money did not jump-start the economy, did not bring down unemployment to 5.8 percent, and his much touted 2010 “Summer of recovery” never materialized. The national debt, which Obama said was “irresponsible” and “unpatriotic” when it hit $9 billion in 2008, has grown to $16 trillion during his watch.

As for questions on social policies, if Romney wants to score points with church-going Catholics, he better be forceful and convincing on issues that matter to them.

It is interesting to note that in past elections, Democrats have blasted Republicans for putting moral and cultural issues on the front burners. For instance, leftist Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas, looked upon the 2004 GOP “vote your values” strategy as a corporate Wall Street cover-up: “The culture wars, in other words, are a way of framing the ever powerful subject of social class. They are a way for Republicans to speak on behalf of the forgotten man without causing any problems for their core big-business constituency.”

This year the Democrats are playing a very different tune. Because they do not want to run on their awful economic record, they are trying to energize their left-wing base by focusing on social issues. That’s why the Democrats stacked their convention with pro-abortion speakers and tried to take “God” out of their platform. The Democratic Party doesn’t give a hoot that 30 percent of its members are pro-life.  They hope those voters stay home.

Romney must be prepared to fight back when moderators ask questions designed to paint him as an extremist. He must turn the tables on Obama and expose him as the radical in the race. He should tell viewers that Obama, as an Illinois state senator, even voted against legislation that would have protected infants who survived late-term abortion procedures. 

Romney should point out that Obama opposes any ban on gender-selective abortions and that Vice President Joe Biden did not condemn China’s law limiting families to one child. “Your policy,” Biden said in 2011 at Sichuan University, “has been one which I fully understand – I’m not second-guessing – of one child per family.”

Romney should also remind pro-life Democrats that the leaders of their party are so extreme that they dropped from their platform their decades old pledge to make abortions “rare.” It’s only “safe” and “legal” now.

Romney must vigorously oppose same-sex marriage and he should announce that, upon taking office, he will instruct the Justice Department to once again enforce the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).       

He cannot let himself get bogged down on questions about the availability of contraceptives. That is not where the conflict with the Church lies. He must state clearly that Obama’s decision to order Catholic schools, hospitals, and charities to amend (by August 30, 2013) their healthcare plans to include birth control services (among them abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization procedures) is a religious liberty issue. He must assure Catholics that as president he will cancel the HHS mandates and that he would never approve government policies that would force Catholics to violate their consciences.

If Romney is to have a shot at winning on November 6, in tonight’s debate he must convince undecided blue-collar, Church-going Catholics – who form a significant part of remaining undecideds – that he will protect not only their economic interests, but their right to practice their religious beliefs without government interference. 

If he comes across as timid or vacillating or uncomfortable in expressing his support of their Catholic values, he will lose the debate – and most likely the election.


George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.