Although the importance of presidential debates is often overestimated, there’s no disputing that the first meeting between Mitt Romney and President Obama shook up the race. Romney, whose campaign had been struggling badly, surged in the polls after outperforming President Obama in front a television audience of 67 million Americans. Tonight’s second debate between the two candidates could propel Romney to an outright lead or nudge the race back toward the long-term trend of President Obama maintaining a small but steady advantage.
In addition to more energy from the President and less dishonesty from Mitt Romney, what I hope to see tonight is a clearer focus on the impact their policies would have on the lives of real people – on the concrete, individual level. Congressional Budget Office reports and independent studies are all well and good, but they don’t spell out the moral stakes of the election for voters.
At the kickoff of the Ohio Nuns on the Bus Tour last week, we heard a moving testimony about what the outcome on November 6 could mean for many Americans. Jini Kai, a woman from Madison, Wisconsin, shared the story of her sister Margaret, who lacked health insurance and died of colon cancer in June. Here’s Jini in her own words:
Any one who lacks adequate resources knows, that it doesn’t take long to accumulate medical bills that can never be paid off in a liftetime. Indeed, Margaret had medical bills that survived longer than she did.
Only when she was too weak to answer her door did her friend scoop her up and head for the ER. There, her stage 4 colon cancer was diagnosed, having already spread to her lungs and liver. Her illness was not survivable. It was a diagnosis too late.
But what that truly breaks my heart is that my sister Margaret’s story is by no means unique. Margaret is merely emblematic of what the Affordable Care Act means to the most vulnerable among us.
When Republicans like Mitt Romney claim that no one dies from lack of healthcare, as he did in an interview with the Columbus Dispatch last week, people like Jini provide a sorely needed refutation. More than any argument I’ve ever heard, she drove home the importance of protecting Obamacare and the safety net. Here’s hoping that stories like hers get a wider hearing.
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Today a Pennsylvania judge ruled that key provisions of the state’s onerous voter-ID law will not go into effect this year. This is good news. If the law were fully upheld, it would have created serious barriers to voting for hundreds of thousands of people.
But that doesn’t mean the threat of disenfranchisement and voter suppression has gone away. Getting the news out to eligible voters who have been told they lacked proper ID and training poll workers to not turn away these voters are huge tasks to accomplish in one month. Numerous other states have voter-ID requirements that make it harder for low-income people, minorities, students and seniors to vote. And that’s not all – Tea Party-affiliated groups are challenging the eligibility of thousands of voters in swing states such as Ohio.
That’s why the faith community’s efforts to ensure that all voters cast their ballots on November 6th are so important. For example, the PICO National Network’s “Let My People Vote” campaign is mobilizing diverse clergy and laypeople to ensure that voters who are disproportionately affected by voter-ID laws and suppression make their voices heard. Last Sunday over 100 members of a Philadelphia church affiliated with the campaign fanned out to congregations across the region to educate and register religious voters. Similar efforts are taking place in communities and congregations nationwide.
In case it doesn’t go without saying, voter-ID laws purporting to combat in-person voter fraud are partisan ploys. This type of fraud is practically nonexistent, and all these laws were passed by Republican legislatures, signed by Republican governors, and disproportionately burden people in demographics that tend to favor Democrats. That’s not just bare-knuckle politics, it’s an affront to American values and to religious leaders’ historic role in securing civil rights for the disenfranchised. Thankfully, people of faith fighting back.
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The Romney and Obama campaigns are both deploying faith outreach strategies and messaging to win religious voters, with the GOP nominee stressing religious liberty and the President emphasizing a broad agenda of moral issues.
The ultimate effectiveness of these efforts remains to be seen, and right now the polling among the largest religious groups paints a complex picture. According to the latest Pew Forum survey, Romney enjoys a 55-point lead among white evangelicals, President Obama has a 15-point lead among Catholics, and the two candidates are tied among white Catholics. Romney’s huge advantage among white evangelicals has been steady, but he has lost 11 percentage points with Catholic voters and 20 points among white Catholics since April.
But elections are decided by votes, not polls, and GOP-aligned groups are mounting a massive voter registration and mobilization program aimed at Catholics and evangelicals. A front-page New York Times story this weekend revealed that Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition is mounting a sophisticated $10 million voter turnout program in must-win states such as Florida and Ohio. In other words, high-level GOP strategists and major conservative donors are investing heavily in making this a “values voters” election in the mold of 2004, when evangelical turnout for George W. Bush was a difference maker.
Every election year, operatives of all partisan stripes bluff, exaggerate and spin to make their campaigns look as strong as possible, but Reed’s program looks genuinely robust. Mitt Romney is trailing significantly in the polls, so he needs a top-notch ground game on Election Day. Thanks to the Religious Right he just might have it. The Obama campaign’s vaunted grassroots network will certainly be formidable, but it looks like they could have some competition.
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When Faith in Public Life and FPL Action Fund were founded, we had a clear vision – to change the values debate and help the faith community advance the common good. We also had an example of how not to go about it – the Religious Right’s incendiary rhetoric and blatant partisanship.
I was reminded of that contrast by last weekend’s Values Voter Summit, the Religious Right’s annual gathering with Republican politicians. Rather than a constructive interaction between faith leaders and politicians, it was a partisan showcase for the GOP’s most radical elements. The imaginary “war on religion” was a predominant theme. Anti-Muslim bigotry abounded. Democratic voters were portrayed as dependent on government handouts.
Earlier in the week, diverse faith leaders showed what an authentic religious contribution to political debates looks like. Speaking at the National Press Club, the Circle of Protection called on both parties to address poverty more directly in their campaigns. They also unveiled video statements about poverty submitted to the group by President Obama and Mitt Romney. The event was a welcome addition to an election focused overwhelmingly on the middle class, but it’s also not enough for candidates to just say they care about poverty. They need to stand up for policies that actually protect the poor, and we shouldn’t be shy about publicly pressuring candidates to offer better policy solutions.
Romney’s statement at a fundraiser that he thinks 47 percent of Americans have a victim complex and refuse to take responsibility for themselves revealed a very different mindset than he shared with the Circle of Protection. It’s hard to claim you’ll make helping the poor a priority when you see them as morally deficient people who will never support you. This contradiction isn’t limited to Romney. As the Values Voter Summit showed, it afflicts the Religious Right as well.
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I was happy to hear numerous speakers at the Democratic National Convention forcefully defend Obamacare. Sister Simone Campbell illustrated the urgency of implementing the law’s Medicaid expansion by telling the story of a woman who died because she lacked health insurance. A mom whose daughter has a heart condition said she can now afford critical surgery thanks to the ban on discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions. Bill Clinton brilliantly explained how the law strengthens Medicaid and Medicare.
It’s an encouraging contrast to the 2010 election, when Democrats shied away from defending Obamacare and lost anyway. Perhaps this year they’ve realized that standing up and arguing that passing health care reform was the right thing to do is a mark of authenticity and strong moral values.
Mitt Romney seems caught off guard by all this. After the Democratic convention he said he’d keep some of the popular Obamacare policies, but hours later he equivocated. And he’s been silent about his passage of universal health insurance as governor of Massachusetts, which was a great achievement.
The implementation of healthcare reform is a point of contention as well. Numerous Republican governors are obstructing Obamacare’s critical expansion of Medicaid for millions of poor families, and yesterday more than 100 faith leaders from across the country called on them to put the needs of their constituents before their political ideology. This isn’t just a political issue. As Sister Simone said at the Democratic convention, it’s a matter of life and death.
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