Saturday, March 29, 2008

Could Casey's endorsement turn the tide in Pennsylvania?

Many people were surprised yesterday that Sen. Robert Casey Jr. (D-PA) endorsed Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) after saying he would stay neutral and after most of the Dem machine in Pennsylvania vowed to support Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY). They should not have been.

In 1992, Bill Clinton got a lot of flack when he prevented the then Governor of Pennsylvania, Robert Casey, from speaking at the Democratic Convention. It is widely suspected it was because Casey was pro-life and Clinton is pro-choice. Many Democrats saw it as a slap in the face, especially as the convention was a month after the US Supreme Court handed down its decision in a Pennsylvania law that Casey designed to reverse Roe v. Wade. In a complicated decision, the Supremes voted 7-2 to uphold most of the law (a waiting period, counselling, parental notification, and public reporting about the fact of an abortion having taken place) but also voted 5-4 to uphold Roe as well as to strike down the most contentious part of the law -- spousal notification.

While some pro-life Democrats were allowed to speak at the podium (although they did not talk about abortion), the fact Casey's slot was instead taken up by some pro-choice Republicans began a family feud of sorts. Why snub the acknowledged leader of the pro-life faction in the party? The Casey clan quietly supported Clinton at the time of election but privately were looking for their opportunity to get back. I think Clinton also missed an opportunity to explain how Casey's approach might help Clinton fulfill his goal of making abortion "safe and legal but rare." That Casey did not endorse Clinton at first during primary season should have irrelevant -- a convention should unite factions within a party.

Casey died in 2000 but he's still widely regarded in Pennsylvania for balancing most socially liberal economic policies with some conservative ones -- which may reflect the realities of most people in the state. In a heavily Catholic state that kind of pragmatism is necessary.

If Hillary Clinton thought that was all behind her, she was wrong. Casey Jr.'s announcement of support for Obama not only revives an old debate it also is an attempt to help Obama win over a major constituency -- the Catholic vote. In 18 of 24 states with major Catholic populations, Clinton has received more votes. Voters in Pennsylvania certainly aren't sheep but the Caseys are very respected and the endorsement should help Obama close the gap with about three weeks left to go. He was trailing by as much as 15 points but now it's down to about eight, and while Obama is obviously pro-choice (as is Clinton) if he is seen as being in tune with the economic issues facing the state he can make it very close.

If he manages to actually win Pennsylvania, it's all over. With all due respect, the Clintons should not have burned their bridges. It went against their claims they were uniters and not dividers. The presidency -- even the nomination of the Democratic Party -- cannot be won by snubbing two core constituencies, pro-life evangelicals and pro-life Catholics.

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