We've talked a lot of policy on the Dish this election cycle – airing legitimate differences on how to handle foreign policy, or taxes, or how best to run a healthcare system. And that's absolutely part of an election, and I fully accept the validity of the views of those who legitimately disagree with me on what are essentially prudential judgments. I've supported Democrats and Republicans in my adult life, for different prudential reasons at different moments in time. In politics, I'm a conservative; not an ideologue.
But there is another dimension to politics and it's about morality. Some issues are not subject to prudential or utilitarian reasoning, but are fundamental a priori moral questions. Let me cite three areas where I think the difference between Obama and Romney is a deep and moral one and requires the exercize of conscience as well as judgment.
The first is universal access to healthcare. I've long been a fan of the great parts of America's private healthcare system: its treatment of patients as customers they want to keep, as opposed to human beings they are simply mandated to treat; the innovation of the pharmaceutical companies in a free market; private hospitals and doctors. But the fact that tens of millions of human beings cannot afford access to this often excellent private healthcare, even in a basic form, remains, to my mind, a scandal. That there are two nations in this country – one with the security of healthcare and one with no security at all – remains, to my mind, a moral disgrace.
That view comes ultimately from my Catholic faith. But it also comes from my surviving a plague and seeing so many die in often unbelievable neglect. It comes from realizing that if I encounter a sick person, every particle of my being wants to see that person get care, and it's only by looking away that I can ignore this core truth. It comes from understanding that as someone with a pre-existing condition, I would be bankrupted if I ever lost insurance through an employer. And I am so much more privileged than so many.
I don't believe in the kind of socialized medicine they have in my home country, where the government really does run the industry. But I do believe as a core moral principle in universal access to basic healthcare in wealthy countries.
This election is really asking you: do you believe everyone should be able to have access to private health insurance or not? When I examine my conscience, my answer has to be yes.
I believe in equal human dignity, and denying someone medicine to live healthily denies that dignity. To run a campaign in favor of removing that kind of security for tens of millions of Americans and replacing it with nothing remotely comparable is simply, deeply, morally wrong.
Torture is also a non-negotiable issue for me. It is simply unacceptable. It is the negation of the West's entire founding principles. Any candidate of any party who supports it rules himself out for me on that ground alone. Romney will bring it back. He will make America a torturing nation again. He would employ the former war criminals of the dark years of Bush-Cheney and legitimize them still further. He would reinforce the idea, propagated by Cheney, that torture is a "no-brainer", giving comfort to every vicious dictator on the planet to do the same. This was not the case in 2008, when both candidates disavowed torture, and one of them had actually suffered by the exact torture techniques approved by Bush-Cheney.
Finally, I cannot reconcile a pre-emptive war against a country that only has the technical ability to make a nuclear bomb, but has not weaponized it or threatened its use, with any reading of just war theory.
I have no illusions about the evil in the Tehran regime. This page was obsessed with the suppressed Iranian revolution three years ago and covered it like no other. I despise theocracy perhaps more than any other form of government – because it is a blasphemy as well as a dictatorship. But when the Supreme Leader of that theocracy publicly declares as religious doctrine that using a nuclear bomb is a sin, and when the opposition in Iran favors the nuclear program as a matter of national pride, and when Iran's nuclear capability would still be no match for Israel's massive and fully actionable nuclear apparatus, then pre-emptive war is morally unconscionable. To use an expression like "mowing the lawn" to decribe such acts of war that would kill countless people makes me sick to my stomach.
If the Iranian theocrats were to constuct an actual nuclear bomb and directed it toward other countries, I still would favor containment. I believe in the doctrine of deterrence. But I can see, given the evil nature of the regime, especially its disgusting anti-Semitism, why some may disagree with that view, including the president. I can also see why the Jewish people, given the enormities they have suffered and the extraordinary achievement of their dynamic, tiny state, would lean on the side of extreme caution. But to launch a war with necessary ground troops and brutal bunker-busting bombs simply because a country has the technical capability to enrich enough material for a nuclear bomb – that's immoral. It's unjust. When that country poses no threat to the United States itself, it's way outside the parameters of a just war.
Romney favors such a pre-emptive war based merely on Iran's capability. Obama favors it based on the actual decision to construct a nuclear weapon. Both, I believe, are morally troublesme, from a just war perspective. But Romney's is far worse. I'm no pacifist. But I also deeply oppose war except in self-defense with as few civilian casualties as is possible.
I'm not citing civil rights issues, but they of course factor in. The GOP's institutional bigotry toward gay people and our lives and families and its stated intent to keep a whole class of us disenfranchized from the basic right to marry the person you love appalls me. But I understand this is a state matter, not a federal one. And I'm addressing presidential decisions here. I endorsed George W. Bush and Bob Dole who explicitly opposed marriage equality. Heck, I supported a Democrat named Barack Obama who did at the time as well. But I believe in federalism on this. And always have.
On the universality of access to healthcare, on torture, and on pre-emptive war, my conscience therefore requires me to withhold support for the Republican candidate. I disagree with him on many prudential policy grounds – but none reach the level of moral seriousness of the above. Yes, a lot of this comes from my faith in the teachings of Jesus and the social teaching of the Catholic tradition in its primary concern for the poor and weak and the sick – rather than praising, as Romney and Ryan do, the superior morality of the prosperous and strong and healthy. But on all three topics, a purely secular argument also applies, simply based on the core dignity and equality of the human person, and the fragile advances we have made as a civilization against barbarism like torture.
That matters. It matters in a way that nothing else does.
(Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama addresses a campaign rally at the Cleveland Burke Lakefront Airport October 25, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio. By Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.)