Last night, Casey began his address, "I am honored to stand before you tonight as Gov. Casey's son"—a pointed reference to his father's previous banishment. Casey mentioned his "honest disagreement" with Obama on the subject of abortion, and he deftly pointed to this disagreement as indicative of Obama's style. "He will pursue the common good by seeking the common ground," said Casey in words that could be drawn from any text on Catholic social thought. Some may object that Casey's speech is merely symbolic, but Catholics never consider symbols to be mere.
The selection of Joe Biden is the third piece of evidence. Biden is pro-choice but not rigidly so. He supported the ban on partial-birth abortion and as recently as 2003 had only a 36 percent rating from NARAL, the pro-choice lobbying group. A press release from NARAL praised the Biden selection but also noted that his record was "mixed." But more important than any particular vote, Biden never tries to weasel out of his conundrum. "Look, I'm a practicing Catholic, and it is the biggest dilemma for me in terms of comporting my religious and cultural views with my political responsibility," he said on Meet the Press in 2007. In short, he embodies precisely the ambivalence that many centrist Catholics feel on the issue.
Catholics for whom abortion is the only issue are never going to vote for pro-choice Democrats. Many others, however, are less certain about both abortion and their party loyalties. For them, an extreme pro-choice posture, such as that seen in banning Casey Sr. from the convention podium in 1992, served as an insuperable barrier to listening to the party on other issues. But as the Democrats begin to show that there really is a difference between being pro-choice and pro-abortion, and that they want to focus on reducing the number of abortions, the party will have crossed a threshold for these voters. They might get a broader hearing on issues such as health care and the war in Iraq.
White Catholics in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana could decide this election (and, to a lesser degree, Latino Catholics in Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico). It will take more than an affinity for one of their own to bring them to support the Obama-Biden ticket. In 2004, if John Kerry had garnered as many Catholics in Ohio as Al Gore did in 2000, he would have won the state and the presidency. Catholics want more than one of their own. They want to feel welcome within the Democratic fold again. If Biden gives voice to his own wrestling with the abortion issue, and Obama and the Democrats continue to take pains to show they are serious about reducing the number of abortions, many centrist Catholics will give them a hearing.
With abortion off the table, Obama and Biden can focus swing voters on the social Darwinism that the GOP currently peddles as economic policy and the chest-beating militarism that masquerades as a foreign policy. In the Gospels, Jesus asks, "Who would give his son a stone when he asks for bread?" On abortion, the Democrats have stopped offering stones. On everything else, stones are all the GOP has to offer.