Bush's Catholic Outreach Director Assesses Obama's Catholic Outreach

Deal Hudson says President Obama's impressive Catholic outreach belies liberal policies.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

Because Deal Hudson was director of Catholic outreach for George W. Bush's 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns, I was interested in hearing his take on the Obama administration's Catholic outreach for my God & Country column in tomorrow's U.S. News Weekly.

Hudson thinks Obama's "common ground" talk on abortion is disingenuous—the president has rolled back the ban on federal funding for abortion providers abroad, supports rescinding the federal ban on government-funded abortion in the District of Columbia, and hasn't ruled out covering abortion through healthcare reform—but is nonetheless impressed by the administration's ongoing Catholic PR blitz.

And Hudson is disturbed by the GOP's silence on the same front. "What is it that the Republicans have offered Catholics to rally behind that can compete with Obama's meeting the Holy Father or even the Notre Dame speech?" Hudson asks. "Nothing."

Excerpts from our chat:

You accompanied President Bush on his first meeting with Pope John Paul II in 2001. How did you think President Obama's first meeting with Pope Benedict XVI went?

It was misleading of the president to speak to the Holy Father about committing to abortion reduction when he knew the healthcare bill would include funding for abortion services and when he was on the record for supporting federal funding for abortions in the District of Columbia. I think those two things taken together will make his promise to the Holy Father a political mistake that will come back to haunt him when it's held up to scrutiny down the road.

If you focus just on the event and immediately afterward, it was a good day for Obama. He got what he wanted: a silent pope and an affable greeting and positive stories coming out about the warm conversation in a 30-plus-minute meeting.

From the Vatican side, there was an attempt, albeit not in your face, to control the spin on the meeting in two ways. First, the pope surprised Obama by handing him the bioethics document on human dignity, whose opening line is: "Human life should be respected from the moment of conception until death." And the Vatican press secretary stressed that life issues were discussed first and foremost with the president, and at length. The Vatican did what it needed to do without being hard-edged, which the White House seemed to accept graciously. So I don't think the White House overplayed its hand on the discussion.

Obama has made many overtures to the Catholic community, from sitting down with Catholic reporters before meeting with the pope to appointing a well-respected Catholic to be his surgeon general. Has such Catholic outreach become standard operating procedure for presidential administrations?

Bush did them, but you can't call them standard operating procedure. It's very smart for Obama to actually take the advice of his Catholic outreach team. They have done a good job navigating the challenges they face among Catholics over their policy positions. If you take some of their Catholic nominations, they seem to have a common thread. Sonia Sotomayor and/or surgeon general nominee Regina Benjamin—they are presented as Catholics, but the part of their story that the White House highlights is something that is compelling from another direction.

The administration knows in both cases that, once the Catholic issues are explored, there are going to be problems [because of the nominees' liberal positions]. But in both cases, they know they can be offset. In the case of the surgeon general, it was her rebuilding of a clinic to help the poor. That's something very appealing to Catholics.

And they know Catholics are very sensitive on Sotomayor to the struggle of a minority woman to navigate the byways of a male-dominated establishment. They have thought carefully about how they are going to offset the expected criticism of these pro-choice Catholic nominees by having stories ready that they know will appeal to Catholics and blunt criticism from the pro-life side.

When we spoke in March, you were disappointed by the Republican Party's anemic Catholic outreach effort. What's your current assessment?

There is not a unified message there. You take the case of the Sotomayor hearings. That would have been a great opportunity for the Republicans to pull together religious conservatives into a coalition. But there was a lack of intensity in their opposition.

I opposed the Republicans' anti-immigration crusade in 2005. It was a huge mistake. We'd gotten 44 percent of Hispanics in 2004, and I saw that all wash away in a number of months in 2005. So the Republicans are ignoring the fact that we have a very bad Supreme Court nominee on our hands because she's Hispanic. It's like we blew the immigration debate, so we're giving this nominee a pass. The Republican Party just hasn't done anything to reunite the religious conservative base and reanimate Catholic supporters.

What is it that the Republicans have offered Catholics to rally behind that can compete with Obama's meeting the Holy Father or even the Notre Dame speech? Nothing. The one chance they had was the Sotomayor hearings, and the best we heard was from some evangelical senators. The Catholic leadership of the Republican Party is laying low, with the exception of [New Jersey Congressman] Chris Smith.

You directed Catholic outreach for the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign and faced a Catholic nominee in John Kerry. How did his Catholic outreach compare with Obama's?

The contrast between Kerry's Catholic outreach and Obama's is night and day. We know that Kerry's inner circle did not take the advice they were getting from their Catholic advisers. There have been Catholic Democrats who've worked for Democratic presidential elections going back four or five elections. And they had this attitude that all American Catholics were post-Vatican II Catholics, that we know what the Vatican thinks but we know that American Catholics believe something else, and we're going to appeal to that something else. It was an undertone of we're on the side of the dissenters.

But between 2004 and 2008, a younger group of advisers like [Obama campaign Catholic outreach director] Mark Linton and [Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good co-founder] Alexia Kelley emerged. They realized that the kind of Catholics who'd voted for Bush were not the kind of Catholics who are moved by invocations of American dissent on contraception, reminders of the sex abuse scandal, and this whole plethora of smart-alecky talk about the Catholic Church in America.

Bush got the Catholic vote by showing respect for the Catholic Church and its leadership and some basic issues of importance to Catholics. And so Obama's advisers packaged him as someone who is going to do what he can to seek the same ends politically that the church wants the government to seek. It's an attitude that we know what the Vatican thinks, and we're going to go as far as we can with that. It's an undertone of respect.

The Obama White House is expected to unveil what it is calling a "common ground" approach to abortion and other reproductive health issues in coming weeks. What are your expectations for it?

Every time the Obama team has planned some sort of initiative on his behalf, it has come off pretty well. The exception would be the Notre Dame speech, which cost him. One thing we learned through the Catholic Voter Project at Crisis [a Catholic magazine Hudson published] is that Catholics don't like a lot of confrontational and aggressive speechmaking in politics. They like messages like "common ground" and "partial agreement" and "working together" and "nonpartisan."

They don't like the old evangelical, more stringent-type message. Actually, common ground has its own resonance with the official Catholic community because it comes from Cardinal [Joseph] Bernardin. So the plan is going to be one more finger in the dike of the eventual realization that the president misled the Holy Father. The policy itself is the funding of abortion, the appointment of pro-choice Catholics, and the repealing of the Mexico City policy, and that's the narrative people need to pay attention to.

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