E.J. Dionne on how Clinton should approach 2016 election

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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Ahead of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland July 18-22 and the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia July 25-29, NCR's Washington columnist, Michael Sean Winters, and E.J. Dionne, a Washington Post columnist and fellow at the Brookings Institute, had a conversation about presidential politics and the state of the electorate. This is Part 2 of their interview. Part 1 is available online here. The interview has been edited for style and clarity. 

NCR: We've been talking about white working-class voters. I want to just tweak it a little to white working-class Catholics. You're absolutely right, the Affordable Care Act has helped many people, but no one more than the people who are most alienated -- the white working-class voters -- people whom I think are most likely to go for Donald Trump. And many prominent Catholics, including the bishops, opposed the Affordable Care Act and did so in very nasty ways. So how would you view the complicity of religious leaders, specifically Catholic leaders, in this Trump phenomenon and the wider Trump conservative phenomenon you described in your book?

Dionne: When you look back at the fight over the Affordable Care Act, I was one of many people who were very upset with where the bishops stood even after the Affordable Care Act was cast to make very clear that it would not violate the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funding for abortion services. The liberals who supported the Affordable Care Act at the time were willing to make the pro-choice wing of their movement very angry by keeping abortion out of the coverage. 

The particular manner with which they kept abortion out of the coverage was insufficient for some of the most conservative bishops, who -- breaking with decades of Catholic social teaching that health care should be a right and that we needed some sort of national insurance system for everyone -- opposed the Affordable Care Act. 

Fortunately, [Daughter of Charity] Sr. Carol Keehan and the Catholic Health Association, large numbers of American nuns, and some others said, "Wait a minute, this does not cover abortion. We Catholics should be supporting the Affordable Care Act." But the bishops opposed it and I still regard that as not only a mistake, but just terribly wrong, given the history of Catholic teaching. …

In the internal discussions in the administration, I have been told that people who wanted to give the narrow exemption could make a political argument that said, "Look, we gave the bishops what we thought they needed on abortion and they still opposed us. What good will we get politically or in any other way out of giving them a decent exemption on the contraception mandate, knowing in all likelihood they will oppose us anyway? We know who our friends are and who will support us." 

I don't think that political argument was the only reason the administration made its original choice, but I think that the bishops' stance was inconsistent with the long history of where the church was on national health insurance, and actually weakened the bargaining position of the church the next time around. 

As you know also, I was very critical of the administration because I thought that precisely because other forces in the church (and again, notably the Catholic Health Association and Sr. Carol) had been critical to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the administration owed moral respect to a view that says a more robust exemption should be included. 

Nonetheless, I think that the church set itself up for criticism on the substance and for weakening its argument farther down the road when it was seeking other concessions in the way the Affordable Care Act was administered. 

Is Hillary Clinton in 2016 well-advised to do a war-on-women repeat that Barack Obama followed four years ago or to fight for the white working-class votes without which you never get the House back? 

Again, I want to underscore that the right-to-life movement in politics -- not all right-to-lifers in the country, clearly, but the right-to-life movement in politics -- made support of the Affordable Care Act itself a form of support for abortion, which simply wasn't true. 

Those [pro-life Democratic] members of Congress had fought to get limitations to make sure that the Affordable Care Act didn't cover abortion. Their reward for this was that right-wing right-to-lifers, more in the name of partisan and ideological politics than in the name of the right-to-life movement, helped to defeat those people. 

Again and again, the message from significant parts of the political right-to-life movement is we are more Republican than we are concerned with this issue because if they were primarily concerned with this issue, they'd want people like [Democratic former Pennsylvania Rep. Kathy] Dahlkemper and others to be in Congress, but they helped defeat them in 2010. That needs to be underscored over and over again to understand why we have gotten to the point we have gotten.

How do we move beyond that point now? How do the Democrats and, specifically, Secretary of State Clinton, move forward looking at the 2016 election, mindful of the fact that you can get to 270 electoral votes, but unless the numbers in the House shrink, then it's still really hard to imagine a successful presidency?

I, personally, don't like a politics in which abortion is a dominant issue. Having said that, I would also say that I don't think abortion is a dominant issue in this election. If it were, Ted Cruz, not Donald Trump, would be the Republican nominee. On the one hand, the staunchest social conservatives in the Republican Party didn't trust Trump and voted for Cruz. 

It's paradoxical that Trump was so uncomfortable with the abortion issue that at one point he said he wanted to punish the women who had abortions, then pulled back from that. But a lot of more socially moderate Republicans, pro-choice Republicans, actually voted for Trump because they didn't take his position on abortion seriously. …

The other thing is the question of who votes on the abortion issue. I think that, historically, it's a minority of Americans for whom abortion is a motivating issue. It does appear that most of those voters tend to vote Republican. Most of those voters are either ideologically conservative Catholics or white Catholics or ideologically conservative white evangelicals. 

To be honest, it's not clear to me how much Clinton loses out of this. If you looked at what [journalist] Melinda [Henneberger] called "abortion-palooza" in the 2012 election, it didn't hurt Obama's chances and I'm just not sure that abortion will be the issue that will play in the swing districts. Indeed, there is evidence that the swing districts in this election may be more middle-class districts that will react with horror at Donald Trump's candidacy. 

Those are the districts that might, in the long-shot scenario, swing the House to the Democrats. It's just not clear to me where the politics of this lie. Over the long run, I would love a more moderate politics than we have on abortion. But moderation is not a position that is ever rewarded on the abortion issue, not by either side of the abortion question.

Do you think Clinton is well-advised to run to the center or to stake out some strong turf on the left, conciliate the Sanders wing? How do you think she should approach this election?

On the one hand, I think Clinton should run as the candidate of moderation. I would distinguish between moderation and centrism. Centrism strikes me often as splitting it down the middle of whatever political spectrum you are handed, as opposed to trying to move the political debate in a particular direction. 

Moderation is an approach to politics, an approach to legislating, an approach to your adversaries. Moderation is a hugely valuable thing in politics that we don't have enough of. I think there are ways in which Hillary Clinton can appeal to middle-of-the-road voters through moderation by saying, "We need a normal approach to foreign affairs. We need a conciliatory approach to our politics at home." 

I like her slogan "Stronger Together" because I think it says (it's a cliché on the left, but it's true), we are stronger as a country if we don't hate each other, if we rise together economically, if we welcome the stranger in our midst, but also understand the legitimate anxieties about immigration. 

But I think part of "Stronger Together" also means that we accept that there is a powerful critique of what our economic policies have been in response to de-industrialization and globalization, and that there are ways of being moderate, but also to appealing to what I see as a very legitimate set of complaints from the Bernie Sanders supporters -- that inequality has gone way too far, that we have not been thinking about working people. 

The minimum-wage increase is clearly part of that. The decline of unions is part of that. Finding ways of moving people to better jobs is part of that. I think one of the most devastating reports that came out all year was the report on the rise in the suicide rate among older white working-class people. I think there's a paradox in our politics, which is that the de-industrialization has hit older white working-class people and inner-city people alike. 

William J. Wilson, the great scholar at Harvard, wrote a book some years ago called When Work Disappears, about the costs of the de-industrialization to people in the inner city, to African-Americans in the inner city. We need a politician who will address that and bring people together. 

I think this is a challenge lastly to, if you will, social Democrats … where we still haven't got a fully adequate set of answers to these problems, but that's our obligation. So I think there are ways of being moderate, but ways of also addressing the legitimate beefs of the Bernie Sanders folks, because they are legitimate.

If you had to recommend one policy to Clinton to address the downside of globalization that would appeal to the white working class voters, what would that one policy be?

I'd begin by looking at the law to provide new ways for white working-class people to have their interests represented, which means strengthening the existing labor movement, but also new models that give working people more power. Underneath that would be a lot of specific policies. She's talked a lot about profit sharing as a routine matter, which I think is a very good idea. 

She has talked a lot about providing social benefits that are of direct benefit to working people in the areas of child care and family leave and the like. … The minimum wage increase is not sufficient, but it is necessary. 

That's a kind of menu of policies, but I think we have to face frankly the fact that the global economy has reduced the bargaining power of working people all over the world, but it has especially affected working people in the wealthier nations. 

When you add 2 billion people to the global labor market, you're going to undercut the bargaining power of the least advantaged people in the richest countries. That's the problem that we in the United States have to face. I think it's a paradox for progressives that they really have to grapple with, which is, we want economic growth in poor countries, we want to lift very poor people out of poverty in the very poorest countries of the world, but we don't want that to happen at the expense of the least advantaged people in our own societies. 

And the destabilization that it entails on both sides. The situation in Honduras didn't just happen.

Exactly. And if I could say one other thing (and this is where I would really like our church to be playing a central role), we need a new discussion of family policy. I think that the social circumstances of our country cry out for people to drop ideology at the door and to face two facts simultaneously. 

We know that the destabilization of the family has had a devastating impact on working-class kids of all races. That's simply true and I have always said that if you care about social justice, you have to care about the health of the family. 

But the other side of that is also true, that if you care about the family, you also have to care about social justice. One of the reasons for family breakup and family decline and family chaos is because working people have more and more trouble supporting a decent family life on the wages that are available to them. 

That's why you're seeing all sorts of other problems among working people, including the drug problem. We desperately need a national conversation across the lines of ideology that takes the family very seriously, but also takes very seriously the role of economic change in putting just excruciating pressures on family life. 

I'd love to see the bishops take a lead on that and the nuns and laypeople in our church. It is, by the way, something that Hillary Clinton could actually talk about quite a bit. She has a lifelong obsession (and it's a good obsession) with the well-being of children. It's something I'd love to see her do, which I think could crisscross some of the ideological lines. Even if it didn't necessarily win her enormous numbers of votes, I think it would be something that would prepare her to govern more effectively.

[Michael Sean Winters writes about religion and politics at NCRonline.org/blogs/distinctly-catholic.]

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