If there's one issue that epitomizes the culture wars that have so deeply divided American politics over the last eight years, it's abortion. That's why those who benefited most from those wars are desperate to revive abortion's single-issue virulence in this presidential cycle.
For the GOP's hard cultural right, abortion was the centerpiece of a grand strategy to link traditionally minded Roman Catholics and socially conservative evangelical Protestants in a great coalition of the religious right that would paint the electoral map ruby red, cementing the Rust Belt and the Sun Belt into a permanent Republican majority.
Now, because of Sen. Barack Obama's perceived problems with blue-collar Catholic voters in the late Democratic primaries, some on the right think they see an opportunity to hammer once more on the abortion wedge. Their most public target is Kansas' second-term governor, Kathleen Sebelius, who many believe is the front-runner for the vice presidential slot if Obama secures the nomination.
Sebelius would help the Illinois senator in several obvious ways -- she's a woman, a Catholic and a Democratic officeholder who has successfully reached across the aisle to make strong Republican allies in a deeply red state.
When she was selected to give her response to President Bush's State of the Union address last January, she began: "In this time, normally reserved for the partisan response, I hope to offer you something more: An American response."
Sebelius, in other words, is a Democratic politician who not only talks the Obama talk but walks the Obama walk.
Recently, however, she has run afoul of Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas. As the Catholic News Service reported earlier this month, the bishop has told the governor that she "should stop receiving Communion until she publicly repudiates her support of abortion and makes a 'worthy sacramental confession.' " In a column for his diocesan newspaper, Naumann wrote that he was particularly outraged by Sebelius' veto of an antiabortion bill, which she -- and nearly every legal scholar who examined it -- believed was unconstitutional.
Naumann dismissed Sebelius' insistence that she personally opposes abortion, and her assertion that because of her pro-adoption policies and improvements in public health services for pregnant women, Kansas' abortion rate has declined significantly. The prelate said that in a private conversation he'd had with Sebelius, the governor said she was "obligated to uphold state and federal laws and court decisions related to abortion." Naumann said he demanded that she show "a similar sense of obligation to honor divine law and the laws, teaching and legitimate authority within the church."
Now there's about as nasty and as utterly avoidable a church-state confrontation as you're likely to see.
That's probably why it was gleefully seized on this week by redoubtable right-wing hit man Robert Novak, who denounced Sebelius in a column titled "A Pro-Choicer's Dream Veep." In the column published in the Washington Post, Novak asserted that Sebelius' "positions are necessary for Democratic politicians to pass their party's pro-choice litmus test, but Sebelius' connection with abortion is more intimate. ... There is substantial evidence she has been involved in what pro-life advocates term 'laundering' abortion industry money for distribution to Kansas Democrats."
The source of those allegations?
Putting aside the question of whether there's anything like an "abortion industry," how does this laundering work? Well, according to Novak channeling Operation Rescue, a Wichita doctor who performs abortions contributed $120,000 two years ago to the Democratic Governors Assn. The governors have since distributed $200,000 to a Kansas political action fund controlled by Sebelius. Given the strictures of the campaign reporting laws -- and the fact that the DGA has also given millions to other political action funds -- that doesn't seem like much of a laundering operation.
But hey, guilt by association is fun to play -- and almost nobody is as practiced at it as Novak -- so why not take it in a different direction? Novak is a relatively recent convert to Catholicism, and the priest who helped him into the church is Father C. John McCloskey, who also has been instrumental in obtaining the conversions of, among others, Alfred Regnery, the country's foremost publisher of extreme right-wing literature; Lewis Lehrman, the former New York gubernatorial candidate and conservative think-tank impresario; former GOP presidential hopeful Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas; and economist and CNBC host Lawrence Kudlow.
McCloskey also happens to be a priest of the ultra-conservative and secretive -- some would say sinister -- Catholic organization Opus Dei. You don't have to buy into Dan Brown's preposterous caricature of Opus Dei in "The Da Vinci Code" to know that it really never has fallen all that far from its roots in Francisco Franco's Spain.
So, does that make Novak's rhetorical shivving of Sebelius part of a right-wing plot to bring the United States under the sway of neo-fascist clericism?
Of course not; it's an absurd and rather vicious notion, but no more so than the implication that Sebelius -- or by extension, Obama -- is in the pay of something called "the abortion industry."
One of the salutary characteristics of this election cycle is the way in which voters concerned with war and a failing economy have rejected single-issue appeals for the traditional American "politics of remedy."
If the culture warriors somehow believe they still can convince the millions of Catholic voters who cast primary ballots for the very pro-choice Hillary Clinton that they now should switch to John McCain, they're fighting the last war.