The radical right's campaign to sabotage the speech, now in its seventh week, is ostensibly an effort to reassert the Church's position on abortion. In reality, the Notre Dame "scandal" is little more than a manufactured controversy, and a predictable product of the Republican coalition's current sorry state of affairs. Leaderless and defeated, the GOP is embroiled in a fight for its very soul, with radicals seeking to step up the culture war over issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, and moderates blaming that same culture war for the party's woes. The radicals reckon that by creating a big enough stink to make something stick to Obama's Teflon-coated armor, they can prove they still deserve a seat at the table.
Notre Dame does seem to rank among the conservative movement's precious few footholds right now. But the American public has grown tired of the culture warriors' antics, and in the long term it's the moderates who have the clear upper hand. Bush's promises to protect "traditional values" were generally unfulfilled. Appointing Roberts and Alito did not magically overturn Roe v. Wade, and recent developments in Maine and Iowa suggest that same-sex marriage is on an unstoppable trajectory to become an American cultural norm. And right-leaning moderate voters, many of whom were swayed by abortion and same-sex marriage in 2000 and 2004, have discovered that the greater threats to the family are job loss and lack of health care and retirement protections -- brought on in large part by eight years of deregulation, trickle-down economics, and war.
In addition to poor field position, the culture warriors' cause is stymied by the president's uncanny resistance to attacks from the traditional pro-life movement. While toeing the party line on choice, Obama has nonetheless struck a conciliatory tone on the broader abortion issue, recently announcing an abortion task force to explore common ground means of reducing abortions, like education, health care, and financial support for pregnant women and families. His genuine commitment to prevention has ruffled the feathers of absolutists on both sides of aisle. But for abortion "grays" -- those Americans who remain conflicted about abortion, many of them moderate swing voters -- the president's willingness to acknowledge the moral dimension of the issue is a breath of fresh air.
The radicals will not join Obama's efforts to find common ground on abortion. First of all, doing so would blunt their ability to label him as "the most pro-abortion president ever." This characterization of the president's abortion position, albeit absurd, is an incredibly effective means of agitating the radical base and filling the culture war's collection plates. Indeed, some 350,000 have signed an online petition opposing the university's invitation (a pro-Notre Dame petition can be found at www.wesupportnotredame.org). Second, while many pro-life Americans operate out of a genuine desire to prevent abortions (and thus view the push for common ground in a favorable light), those at the movement's helm seem to have different objectives. Campaigns like the one currently being waged against Notre Dame are little more than cheap attempts to score political points, ones which more often than not function as cover for a decidedly anti-life and anti-family agenda -- see deregulation, trickle-down economics, and war, above.
Attempting to obscure the purely symbolic nature of their campaign, the radicals will point to the fact that a number of high-profile Notre Dame alumni have vowed to stop donating, that former Vatican ambassador Mary Ann Glendon turned down the university's prestigious Laetare Medal in protest, and that fifty or so bishops (a fraction of the hundreds of Catholic prelates who lead the U.S. Church, mind you) have expressed displeasure with the university's decision. But these voices were late to the game, spurred into action by a well-organized radical right, and generally unwitting of their participation in a partisan power struggle. The students, for their part, are thrilled that the president of the United States will be speaking to them on graduation day.
No, the driving forces behind the supposed outrage were not pious masses, but Catholic Republican front groups like Fidelis (a GOP-supporting political action committee), the Catholic League (home of self-appointed Church spokesperson Bill Donohue), and the Cardinal Newman Society (an organization whose main purpose, conveniently, appears to be to attack Catholic colleges and universities who invite Democrats to speak). And then there's Newt Gingrich, who, in the midst of his own bid to recapture the reins of the GOP, recently converted to Catholicism. It was Gingrich -- not Glendon or the reluctant bishops -- who scored some of the first media points against Obama's speech with a March 24th tweet: "It is sad to see notre dame invite president obama to give the commencement address Since his policies are so anti catholic values [sic]."
For the right wing culture warriors, Catholic and otherwise, success at Notre Dame will not be measured by whether the university rescinds its invitation - that would require a kind of divine intervention that no Hail Mary can elicit. Rather, it will be measured by the leadership that emerges to guide the GOP through the 2010 and 2012 election cycles. Saner voices are attempting to prevail. But if the party faithful can be convinced that the culture war's benefits outweigh its costs, the radical voice will continue to dominate the Republican agenda.