The day after the election, Slate’s political writers tackled the question of why the Democratic Party—which has now lost five of the past seven presidential elections and solidified its minority status in Congress—keeps losing elections. Chris Suellentrop says that John Kerry was too nuanced and technocratic, while George W. Bush offered a vision of expanding freedom around the world. William Saletan argues that Democratic candidates won’t win until they again cast their policies the way Bill Clinton did, in terms of values and moral responsibility. Timothy Noah contends that none of the familiar advice to the party—move right, move left, or sit tight—seems likely to help. Slate asked a number of wise liberals to take up the question of why Americans won’t vote for the Democrats. Click here to read previous entries.
When thinking of values, faith, and how to win elections, it’s useful to ask, What Would Clinton Do? Bill Clinton always combined economic liberalism with a handful of cultural issues designed to appeal to red-state voters: welfare reform, crime, and national service. He picked these issues carefully, knowing that they would show traditional Americans that he wasn’t a morally permissive liberal who didn’t understand right from wrong (tee-hee).
What was John Kerry’s equivalent of welfare reform—his way of connecting with culturally conservative blue-collar voters? His willingness to shoot geese?
Kerry’s method was to highlight his military service, but when the Republicans destroyed his veteran mystique he was left as a standard issue Massachusetts liberal. In other words, if Democrats think they’re going to woo values voters merely by putting religious clothing on liberal ideas, they’re kidding themselves. They have to promote ideas that appeal to red-state moderates substantively.
Look at it another way. Since 1968, Democrats have fielded liberal nominees in six elections (Humphrey, McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry). They went 0 for 6. They’ve fielded centrist candidates in four elections (Carter twice and Clinton twice). They won 3 out of 4.
Let’s be clear about who these “values voters” were in 2004. Somewhere between 30 percent and 40 percent of Americans are born-again Christians. About 15 percent of the population is religious conservatives of the sort we used to call the “religious right.” The other born-agains consist of a group that Beliefnet has labeled “freestyle evangelicals”—Bible-centered, religious, church-going, and politically moderate.
How could Democrats reach freestyle evangelicals? Bob Wright nailed one way: cultural pollution. Violence and sexual explicitness in the media are something on which red-state and blue-state parents can agree.
But it wasn’t just evangelical Protestants who gave Bush the margin, it was also moderate Catholics. Last time, Gore won Catholics; this time, Bush did. In fact, with the exception of the 1984 Reagan landslide, John Kerry did worse among Catholics than any Democrat since the Gallup organization start measuring such things in 1952. And the most ominous trend in the election for Democrats was Bush’s strong performance among Hispanic Catholics.
For that reason, I think the Democrats must swallow hard and reassess their approach to abortion. No, Catholics are not all pro-life, but even the ones who are pro-choice are uncomfortable with partial-birth abortion. On that issue, Bush came off as the sensible, moral moderate. Kerry, on the other hand, came off as an amoral extremist.
Katha Pollitt asked how the Democrats could attract “anti-choicers” without alienating pro-choicers. Actually, John Kerry had secretly discovered the formula, but he forgot to mention it. In 1997, Kerry voted for an amendment banning abortion of post-viability fetuses. That’s perfectly consistent with Roe v. Wade, which also pegged abortion rights to viability, and yet it would have banned more abortions than Bush’s partial-birth abortion. Kerry could have talked about his plan to curb late-term abortions—”because that’s a life and killing a life is immoral”—and at the same time hammered the Republicans for supporting a constitutional amendment banning ALL abortion. (Yes, that was in the Republican platform. Why didn’t Kerry mention that?)
Yet Kerry refused to talk about this—presumably because he didn’t want to offend pro-choice voters and fund-raisers. Well, Republican leaders routinely sit down with their interest groups and say, in effect, “Cut me some slack and we’ll win this thing.” And the interest groups do—and they win. Democratic politicians have to say to pro-choice groups, “You got 100 percent pro-choice purity from the Democratic nominee—and Republican control of the White House, Senate, the House, and Supreme Court. Perhaps we could try a different approach?”
What about the God talk? As I’ve argued often in these pages in the past, the Democrats need to be able to speak about faith in a way that doesn’t seem phony and alien. Perhaps the most telling moment was during the Democratic Convention when, in the midst of a very good riff on his faith, Kerry declared, “We welcome people of faith.” It sounded like he was the leader of a secular party graciously opening the doors to strangers.
Democratic politicians should never forget something simple: Most Republicans and most Democrats are religious. Using faith language is not just about sucking up to their voters, it’s about talking to your own base, too—and those Catholics who abandoned the party this year.
On some level, the hardest thing that Democratic leaders, activists, and journalists have to do is honestly ask themselves this: Do you hold very religious people in contempt? If you do, religious people will sense it—and will vote against you. And there are more of them than there are of you.