You might not know it from this morning’s press clippings, but there were two unity speeches last night. Sen. Hillary Clinton’s valedictory is front page and above the fold on every newspaper in America. Buried at the end of the lead stories, after noting the forgettable keynote address of former Virginia Governor Mark Warner, you might find a mention of Sen. Bob Casey’s address to the assembled Democrats, a speech that for many of us was even more overdue than Clinton’s.
Sen. Casey was aware of the historical import of the moment and he began his speech with these words: "I am honored to stand before you tonight as Gov. Casey’s son…"
In 1992, the Senator’s father was the Governor of Pennsylvania, the fifth largest state in the Union. He was a lifelong pro-life Democrat, one of the few who did not flip their position after Roe v. Wade. (Curiously, one of the other pro-life Democrats who did not abandon her defense of pre-natal life was Connecticut Governor Ella Grasso, the first woman elected governor of a state in her own right.) Gov. Casey wanted to address the convention on the issue of abortion. He was barred from the podium.
Some of the 1992 campaign officials have tried to re-write the history of that first class snub. Last night on CNN, former Clinton aide Paul Begala denied that abortion was the reason Gov. Casey was barred from speaking. He noted that Casey had not endorsed the ticket and "wanted to speak about abortion for thirty minutes" and "no one" wanted that. Well, Mr. Begala, many of us pro-life Democrats did want that. (Would twenty minutes have been okay?) We certainly did not want to see the most noted spokesman of our cause denied even the right to speak. Nor did we want to belong to a party that applied such a litmus test. The governor of a state you need to win can talk about whatever he or she wants when they address a national convention.
For many pro-life Democrats, the appearance of Gov. Casey’s son at the podium last night was the important unity speech. The pro-choice litmus test had been set aside. No one deleted Sen. Casey’s reference to abortion in his speech, nor his acknowledgement of an "honest disagreement" with this year’s nominee, Barack Obama, on that issue.
When you drive along route I-81 and enter the Scranton area in northeast Pennsylvania, the skyline is dominated not by skyscrapers but by steeples. Scranton and Wilkes-Barre are home to some of the nation’s most beautiful ethnic churches. In the state’s southwest corner, you find small hamlets like New Baltimore, a village dominated by a Catholic retreat center. There are eight bishoprics in this one state. Last night, the Democratic Party welcomed pro-life Democrats back into its fold.
Sen. Clinton’s speech was everything the Obama campaign could have hoped for. She was fulsome in her endorsement of Obama and withering in her criticism of John McCain. She spoke directly to her supporters’ motives and tried to re-direct them, asking, "Were you in this campaign just for me? Or were you in it for that young marine and others like him? Were you in it for that mom struggling with cancer while raising her kids? Were you in it for that boy and his mom surviving on the minimum wage?" If anyone who supported Clinton and listened to her last night still refuses to support Obama, they are, in the felicitous phrase of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, "post-rational."
The two speeches not only helped unite the party. They shared another, specific link. In the primaries, Clinton trounced Obama among Catholics. In Pennsylvania, she took 70% of the Catholic vote. Sen. Casey had endorsed Obama before the primary, demonstrating the limits of surrogacy. But, last night, both speeches made a case for Barack Obama in addition to giving their personal seal of approval. That case was directed squarely at white, ethnic Catholics in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana who have not yet signed on to the Obama campaign. Clinton and Casey have set the stage. Tonight, Scranton native Joe Biden, and tomorrow night, Obama himself, must take the stage and find a way to reach those Catholic swing voters.
Michael Sean Winters