Republican presidential candidate John McCain feigned fury at Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama for voting against the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice John Roberts. This was not simply a cheap political shot at Obama, since Hillary Clinton, and 20 other Democrats also opposed Robert's confirmation. He didn't knock any of them. McCain had two reasons for slamming Obama. One, it's part of the openly boasted GOP attack strategy to tar Obama as a far out liberal pro abortion, gay rights, and tax and spend Democrat who's out of step with mainstream voters. The other reason is less transparent but much more crucial to McCain's seeming compelling need to reassure conservatives, especially Christian evangelicals, that they have nothing to worry about from a McCain White House.
The constant buzz during much of 2007 and into 2008 was that a larger segment of evangelical voters than ever would be receptive to the Democrats. And with the supposed residual bad feeling many evangelicals had toward McCain, evangelicals would be less than thrilled to storm the polls for him. Even if they didn't vote Democratic, which was still unlikely for many evangelicals, a lackluster vote would be the same as a vote for a Democrat.
There are several glaring problems with that. One is McCain's actual voting record. He has been anything but the maverick, thumb his nose at GOP conservatives sometimes depicted when it comes to the prime evangelical litmus test of abortion. He opposed any federal funding for abortion, backed parental consent for abortion, and supported the ban on women in the military getting an abortion at an overseas hospital even if they paid for it. He enthusiastically backed Roberts and every conservative Supreme Court, as well as the federal court, judge Bush nominated. In almost all cases, the judicial nominees toed the GOP line in opposing abortion.
Despite McCain's occasional soft peddle of the high court's Roe v. Wade ruling, he once said that he'd let it stand, that never diminished his standing with a wide swatch of evangelical voters. McCain did almost as well with evangelicals in some primary states as short term GOP presidential contender Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee who was regarded as being more in tune with their traditional views and beliefs. The reason for this is that the big majority of evangelicals are traditional Republicans, and are concerned about a wide range of public policy issues such as terrorism, national security, taxes, and smaller government. McCain reflects those views and their philosophy on these issues.
Some Democrats have talked wistfully about going after some evangelical voters. A couple of polls and surveys have shown that the younger ones are more concerned about poverty and global warming than abortion and gay rights and might be ripe for the Democratic pickings. The problem with that is the powerful and cohesive organizational structure of the flagship evangelical churches with their top down leadership. The Democrats would have to convince these leaders that they can work in sync with evangelicals, young and old, on such issues as poverty and war opposition, while not totally betraying their long standing support of religious tolerance, gay rights and abortion. That's a tough, if not impossible, political contortion for moderate and liberal Democrats to make.
McCain can also bank on political tradition. Conservative evangelicals have voted solidly for conservative Republicans for nearly three decades. A sharp reversal to back Democrats in the relatively short span of four years would require a total volte face, an almost superhuman political fete. It's not impossible but with the deep seated loathe of many evangelicals of Hillary as a walking religious sacrilege, and the knock of Obama as an out of touch lefty, only the most wishful thinking Democrats could believe that such a dramatic political transformation could happen.
The hard reality is that no matter how much saber rattling some Christian evangelical leaders do against McCain, they are still Republicans, and even the worst Republican by their standard is still heads and shoulders above a moderate to liberal Democrat, no matter how much some Democrats talk about their Christian beliefs as both Obama and Clinton occasionally do.
Though an embittered Focus on Family President James Dobson in 2007 loudly proclaimed that he wouldn't vote for McCain, it wasn't clear whether Dobson spoke for anyone other than Dobson. In the showdown between McCain and Obama or Clinton, Dobson and other disgruntled Christian evangelical leaders will move quickly to bury the hatchet with him. McCain will get a stamp of approval from Huckabee, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback whom Christian evangelicals like and respect despite his conversion to Catholicism, and all other political evangelicals. They have little choice. The prospect of losing the White House and the power and political dominance it represents is just too frightening a prospect for them.
McCain really didn't need to rap Obama for voting against Roberts to send the message that he's still the evangelical's go to guy. They already knew that.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).