Moral equivalence?

Signs point toward the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, Jan. 4, 2008. (CNS/Paul Buck, EPA)

Every once in awhile, after a couple of columns in which I have been challenging, some would say beating up on, the Democrats and the left, I receive some concerned emails and phone calls. They more or less convey the sentiment I once saw on a bumper sticker: Friends don't let friends become Republicans.

It is one of the uglier qualities of the time in which we live that criticism of one's own is seen as some kind of threat, even a variety of disloyalty. I have always been a proud man of the left. I have never been a Stepford wife. Besides, part of the rationale of being on the left is that you should have an allergy to agitprop, no?

That said, I do not want to create the impression that I am in any way suggesting there is a moral equivalence between the two major political parties. If I worked for the church in an official capacity of any kind, I would go out of my way to balance criticisms of the Democrats and the Republicans. Bishops and clergy should avoid even a hint of partisanship. But, I work for the one thoroughly independent news outlet that focuses on the life and work of the church, so I feel no such obligation. Quite the contrary: Nothing in my job description requires me to shelve our human capacity to assess moral value. This is NCR, not EWTN.

To watch Sen. Mitch McConnell object repeatedly to any and all Democratic pleas for hearings and debate on the health care overhaul that has been prepared behind closed doors, is to appreciate what it might have been like to work for Bismarck. McConnell is not totalitarian, but he is only interested in the exercise of power to achieve results he desires. At all costs, he intends to win and if that means disregarding the norms of democracy, so be it.

If he truly believed that the as-yet-secret health care proposals would be good for the country, he would want to shine a light on them. If he truly thought this bill was about improving health care, rather than giving tax cuts to the rich, he would share the details with the American people. Perhaps he really thinks that his free market solutions are the only viable solutions, perhaps he believes his own propaganda (which is a kind of sincerity) but it is hard to tell. True believers usually try and persuade others of their creed and McConnell doesn't seem interested in persuading anyone of anything.

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Last year, after the sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, McConnell decided, pretty much on his own, that he was not going to grant the courtesy of a hearing, still less a vote, to then President Barack Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland. This was an enormous injustice to Judge Garland, to be sure, but it was also a further ripping apart of constitutional norms in the interest of pure power politics. And, frighteningly, it worked if by "worked" you mean that the process by which Supreme Court nominees are confirmed became even more polarized, a decent and accomplished man was treated beyond shabbily but you got a young, conservative vote on the court rather than a middle-aged, moderate vote.

It has become increasingly obvious that Republican leaders need to ask difficult but astonishingly serious questions about the president of the United States. But, instead of asking about his ties to the Russian government and its various tentacles, or his willingness to fire an FBI director for doing his job, we all got to witness what CNN labeled, charitably, as the "weirdest" Cabinet meeting ever, with all the spontaneity of a meeting of the Supreme Soviet. It was creepy beyond belief. You don't need a degree in psychology to know that someone who found that performance a good thing was a pretty damaged individual.

Speaker Paul Ryan is someone whom I have repeatedly tried to like. Every baby step he took away from his Randian past I saw as a sign of definite movement, perhaps even conversion. I was misleading myself. Now, with a president at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue who will sign legislation, Ryan has abandoned any concern for the poor in his rush to enact tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and shrink the size of the federal government. He, like the Cabinet, gushes in the president's presence. In the House debate over the health care overhaul, he caved on all major issues to the most extreme members of his caucus, putting party unity ahead of what is good for the country. If I were walking to Jericho and saw Ryan beaten and bruised by the side of the road, I would attend to his needs and put him up in an inn for convalescence, but would I choose an inn in Siberia.

Sen. McConnell and Speaker Ryan do not operate in a vacuum. They poll their positions every week. And, this leads to the scariest prospect: They know that the 2018 midterm elections will be low turnout affairs, and the only way to win is to appeal to your core supporters. And, enough Republican voters, not just professional politicians, are fine with 23 million people losing their health insurance, fine with a president who seems not the least concerned to even establish the facts that pertain to Russian meddling in our elections, fine with cutting benefits to the poor in order to enact tax cuts for the uber-rich. Certainly, the results in the four special elections this year indicate that not enough Republican voters are prepared to rein in the president.

Remember the game we used to play as little children when we were learning how to group things? We would be given a list of four or five items and asked, "Which one is not like the others?" So, if shown a car, a bus, a truck and a hotel, we would pick the hotel because it is not a motor vehicle. I look at the Democrats and their blindness on abortion is grievously wrong, but abortion is, for them, the hotel in the example above: The Democrats stand up for the voiceless and the marginalized and the poor in most instances, but they get this one wrong, and it is a big thing to get wrong. But, for Republicans, recognizing the infamy of abortion is the only thing they get right. Everything else they get wrong.

There is no moral equivalence between the parties from the standpoint of Catholic social teaching. The Democrats get one big thing wrong and the Republicans get a lot of big things wrong. Until there is a Catholic party, I will be rooting for the Democrats.

[Michael Sean Winters covers the nexus of religion and politics for NCR.]


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