The weak arguments of “Catholics for Romney”

The weak arguments of “Catholics for Romney” August 7, 2012

I’ve just seen the Catholics for Romney group, chaired by seven previous ambassadors to the Vatican. I can only assume that they hope the names can provide the gravitas that is sorely lacking in the substance of the argument!

From my perspective, a vote for Romney is simply non-negotiable. To be clear, I am under no illusions about Obama either. In some senses, he has been a great disappointment. I’m referring mainly to his foreign policy which seems to place little value on human life and human dignity, especially if that person does not carry a piece of paper with “USA” stamped upon it. As some witty person remarked, he is the only Nobel peace prize winner with his own hit list! True, he has ended the Bush-Cheney torture regime, and for that he should be commended. But apart from that, I see very little light between him and Bush on national security.

At some fundamental level, however, I can understand Obama. I recognize him clearly for what he is – a centrist Social Democrat who, in the name of liberal tolerance, is not always respectful of the appropriate role of subsidiary mediating institutions in the social order. He is intelligent, and happy to display his intelligence in public – this is a breath of fresh air. But while his Republican opponents are not necessarily fools, they are, shall we say, good at playing them on TV!

On the other hand, I simply cannot understand the philosophy that underpins Romney and the Republicans. It is entirely alien to me. It frequently uses the language of Christianity, but it is a foreign Christianity. Perhaps it is because I did not grow up in the United States. But the modern Republican movement seems to eschew all sense of social solidarity and mutual obligations toward one another that might tread upon individual liberty. On top of that, it embodies a heightened and frequently militaristic approach to the false doctrine of American exceptionalism. And it somehow dresses this all up in Christianity. I don’t get it.

So for me, Obama is acceptable, with some major caveats. Romney is not. Let me explain myself in ten (yes, ten!) points:

1. Health care. For me, this is the over-riding reason for supporting Obama and it trumps pretty much everything else. The Affordable Care Act is quite possibly the most importance piece of legislation in decades. Because of it, over 30 million more people will receive health insurance. Because of it, countless millions will not suffer or face financial ruin because they happen to become ill. It will end one of the greatest scandals in America, a grave sin against justice. And all the evidence suggests that the reforms will lower the public debt over the years ahead, pointing to its prudence. Here’s the issue: Romney has vowed to repeal the Affordable Care Act. We must take him at his word. As president, he will be able to do so, given that both House and Senate are likely to controlled by Republicans. After the Supreme Court decision, this is the last obstable left. So on this issue in particular, this election actually matters. A great deal. But the venerable ambassadors mention none of this. They talk about the HHS mandate as if it were the over-riding issue. My views on this are clear – I think the Obama administration was wrong, even if some bishops are making the wrong arguments. But to sacrifice millions to overturn a wrongheaded contraception mandate is callousness of the highest order.

2. Economic plans. Again, the statement is strangely silent on the dominant issue of the election. And here, the facts are straightforward. Romney’s tax plan, as an independent source put it, would give large tax cuts to high-income households, and increase the tax burdens on middle and lower-income taxpayers. It is also anti-family by increasing taxes on families with children. This comes on top of the huge cuts in social safety nets and health care for the poor that Romney has planned to implement as part of the Ryan budget. To top everything off, Romney’s plan still increases the deficit by more than Obama’s – such is the scale and importance of the upper income tax cuts. Romney’s main concern is not spending, or debt, or even growth  – it is making sure that upper-income taxpayers pay even less than they do today, when these rates are already at a historic low. It is about continuing the trends of the past three decades, in which rising inequality strained the social fabric to boiling point.

3. Financial affairs. Romney pledges to repeal the Dodd-Frank financial reform act, and replace it with…nothing really. In other words, he wants to return to the financial sector that brought us the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression. And his Wall Street backers believe him, given the rate that are pouring funds into his campaign. Let’s be straight about this: the bailout of the financial sector by the Bush and Obama administrations was necessary. I did not like the way it was handled – one of my big complaints about the Obama administration is that it provided virtually free money to the banks with no strings attached and scant oversight. And because of this, the financial sector never really learned its lesson and the system is no safer now than before the crisis. that said, Dodd-Frank does have some real teeth, such as the mechanisms in place to avoid future bailouts, the enhanced oversight over shadow banking, and the Volcker Rule that stops banks gambling with federally insured funds. We need to go further – to go back would be an absolute disaster.

4. Foreign Affairs. If Obama’s foreign policy is disappointing, Romney’s would be terrifying. Everything he says is a retread of the aggressive neoconservatism that proved disastrous for this country and for the world. I believe Obama is (like practically every American elected official) too biased toward Israel and against Palestine, but Romney takes this to a whole new level, cynically embracing the expansionism of the Israeli setter movement, with its violation of basic human rights. I believe a Romney presidency would lead to war with Iran, which scares the hell out of me.

5. Abortion. Must our friends on the Catholic right be fooled every time? Obama is derided as the most “anti-life” president ever, simply because he holds standard secularist views on the legality of abortion. But his office has extremely little control over policies that affect abortion directly (as opposed to indirectly through economic, social, and health care policies). In the one key test, he made sure that taxpayer-funded abortion would not be part of the Affordable Care Act. Romney, on the other hand, talks the talk. He’s had a conversion. But what he fails to mention is that his healthcare plan in Massachusetts resembled the Affordable Care Act in all ways but one – Romney included taxpayer funding of direct abortion. Note that this took place after his “conversion”, not before. So we can look at rhetoric, or we can look at evidence. And then there is the old argument about the Supreme Court, but this argument weakens with every passing year, given the sequence of radical decisions against the common good being made by those so-called “pro-life” judges. None of this to say is that Obama is “pro-life” – but he is no less so than his opponent.

6. Climate change. I’m shocked and appalled why how little attention this is getting. In all likelihood, this will be the greatest economic problem of the next 30 years, and will hit the poorest people in the world especially hard. It’s already happening in Africa and elsewhere. This is an area where the Church and the pope have a lot to say. How can we talk about the burdens of debt for future generations and not mention the burdens of a warming climate? I can only hope and pray that Obama will take this up in his second term, especially since he is no longer running for reelection. We need some form of cap-and-trade or carbon taxation. We are running out of time. And we can be pretty sure that Romney will do absolutely nothing.

7. Gay marriage. According to our ambassador friends, Romney will “defend the institution of marriage before the Congress, the courts, and the country”. I don’t really know what that means, or what its practical effect will be. Legalizing gay marriage is a largely state and local issue. As for the “institution of marriage”, it has already been debauched by self-centered heterosexuals. I’ve written about this here. This is a generational issue. When you ask the younger generation what bothers them most about the Church today, the answer is clear: the perceived treatment of gay people. I’m not suggesting any change in fundamental teaching on sexual ethics, but the time has come to make a clearer separation between how marriage is understood by the Church and how it is understood by the secular world. Hold up marriage without putting down gays. Clearly, this debate has little to do with a presidential election.

8. Immigration reform. This is a huge issue for the Church, and yet the Romney Catholics have nothing to say. Maybe it is because their candidate had some of the nastiest anti-immigrant rhetoric during the primary season. Hopefully, Obama will give this the attention it deserves in his second term.

9. Gun control. This is a moral issue, a pro-life issue, and yet nobody has the guts to tackle it. At least Obama has made some noises about restoring the ban on assault weapons. Frankly, I’m not optimistic about this going very far, but Romney will certainly not even try.

10. Romney’s background. This often doesn’t matter, but this time it does. As the crisis taught us so painfully, things went dramatically wrong in the 1980s with waves of financial deregulation and shifts in cultural norms. Mitt Romney rode this wave. Bain Capital was at the cutting edge of this “shareholder value” revolution that led the “financialization” of the economy. Like most private equity firms, it used debt to buy up a company and then aggressively pursued short-term financial return over longer-term sustainability. Sometimes that meant expanding and hiring, but often it was simply looting and firing – get in, restructure, get out. This approach to business goes squarely against Catholic social teaching, especially evident in the writings of the current pope. Benedict condemns the idea of making profit the number one criterion, and caring exclusively about the interests of shareholders over all other stakeholders (such as workers, suppliers, consumers, the natural environment, and broader society). These issues matter for Catholics: in their election manifesto, the Irish bishops came out strongly against the “excesses of advanced capitalism” over the past few decades. To make matters worse, Romney’s own aggressive approach to minimizing his own taxes betrays a lack of public virtue. This would not matter so much if Romney’s policies went in a different direction. But they do not. He is clearly the wrong person to lead this country at this time.

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