As I wrote yesterday right after the Saddleback forum, McCain was spectacular. He only really has one riff on his personal faith (the cross in the sand), but it’s a damn good one and we have to remember that most people haven’t heard the story yet. (He needs to be careful on one point: he keeps adding new details to the story; if he keeps doing that, people will feel like he’s embellishing for votes). He started with a stronger hand – he is pro-life and anti-gay marriage – but he played his cards forcefully.
But let’s not get carried away. Religious conservative Gary Bauer said on CBN that Obama destroyed his chances of winning significant numbers of evangelicals with his answers on abortion and the Supreme Court. He further said that the only votes Obama will get are of the “religious left” which “all Democratic candidates get.” This completely misunderstands or misstates Obama’s political goals. Remember: John Kerry got 22% of the white evangelical vote. Bill Clinton got 32%. Obama’s task is to get back to Clinton levels, not to win conservative evangelicals.
Bauer cited a few particular moments. He hated Obama’s line that determining when life begins is “above my pay grade.” I agree that this was a poorly framed answer. If he was going to make this argument, he should have been more direct and say, “Only God really knows that. But since we have to pick someone to make this choice, I believe the choice should rest not with the legislature or the courts but with the women in consultation with her pastor.” He was too clipped and cryptic. And he could have been far more emphatic on his goal of “reducing the number of abortions.”
Bauer also claimed that Obama “lied” about supporting a ban on partial birth abortion. Obama said he would sign a partial birth ban that protected the life of his mother. You can say you don’t believe Obama will put real muscle behind ending partial birth abortion, but Obama has stated his position clearly at this point. Saying Obama is lying on this is, well, a lie.
He also crticized Obama’s naming his least favorite Supreme Court justices as Clarence Thomas and John Roberts. I actually thought this was one of Obama’s better moments. By criticizing Thomas for lacking experience, he was showing that he would not shying away from criticizing an African American who didn’t meet performance standards. And when describing why he didn’t like Roberts, Obama said the Chief Justice supports giving executive branch too much power — an issue that appeals not only to liberals but libertarian Republicans and independents.
Let’s keep in mind Obama’s goals going in to the night:
1) Personal Faith — Showing evangelicals who think he’s a secret Muslim or a Black Liberation Theologist that he’s actually a serious Christian. He did this brilliantly, speaking comfortably and emphasizing personal salvation as much as social justice. That’s crucial. Grade: A+
2) Abortion – His goal was to show that although he’s pro-choice, he views it as a moral issue and wants to reduce the number of abortions. He’s been cast as a pro-abortion radical who wants late terms abortions and is fine killing babies who accidentally get born during an abortion. The goal is not to win over folks who view abortion as a litmus test, it’s to get those who like Obama on many other issues but can’t quite pull the trigger because of discomfort on this. They don’t need to agree with Obama; they just need to think of him as reasonable, and wanting fewer abortions. I thought he was a bit muddier than he needed to be but not horrible. Grade: B
3) Gay Marriage – The young evangelicals that he’s courting are fine with civil unions. All Obama needed to do was say he thinks marriage is between a man and a woman, which he did. Grade: A-
4) Temperament – He needed to show them that he’s not Rev. Wright. His sense of nuance, reasonableness and temperamental moderation worked well. Over at Progressive Revival, Paul Raushenbush notes that Obama’s answer about the perils of doing evil in the name of fighting evil is one that actually may appeal to some Christians. All in all, Obama has been cast as a crazy radical. Instead, he oozed reasonableness. It wasn’t as exciting as McCain’s sharpness, but Obama’s goal with this audience was to comfort and reassure not excite. Grade: A-
Just because McCain was outstanding doesn’t mean Obama flopped.