Why are so many Democrats so flat-footed when it comes to discussing values? It was a pathetic show on Tim Russert's publicity show, Meet the Press, last Sunday morning. Mary Matalin declared that some people vote on values, and that's why the Republicans won, implying quite condescendingly that the rest of Americans don't vote on values, and that values necessarily equate with Republican positions. That's typical GOP talk: frame the discussion, and declare victory.
The usually sharp James Carville stammered and rambled about managing issues and poked at GOP hypocrisies, but could not engage on the level of values. And he's not alone. Almost all of the Dems seem clueless about how to talk about values. Even the DNC chair's mea culpa could only talk around values without really digging in.
At least they seem to be aware that they weren't even in the ballgame, not for a long time. The thing is, most of the people who voted against Bush were indeed voting on values -- values of peace, diversity, equality for all citizens, privacy, protecting the environment, reducing abortion, keeping women's bodies free from government seizure, and not running the country into a fiscal ditch our grandkids are going to have to dig out of. But the Dems couldn't really articulate that. They haven't been able to for quite some time.
And it seems like they still don't get it. Representative Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) said on the News Hour yesterday that Democrats needed to bargain their way back into the ballgame. Huh? This approach didn't quite work for John Kerry, who tried to bargain his way around gay marriage and could not or would not articulate the moral reasons why he supported a woman's right to choose.
It has been a long, meandering slide for the Democrats over the decades since the civil rights era, when the Democratic Party last was pushing the moral agenda forward. Some people point to the election of Ronald Reagan as the watershed moment for the rise of conservatism. For eight years, the Dems were rocked on their heels. But they still had fight. They still debated on values.
In 1988, it all changed. When Michael Dukakis was nominated, at first he seemed a hopeful candidate, the governor of the â€œMassachusetts Miracle.â€? And George H.W. Bush, with his seeming lack of personality and problems with the â€œvision thing,â€? seemed vulnerable. But it wasnâ€™t to be. One can point to any number of reasons why Dukakis lost the election. But there was one moment when the Democrats lost their hold on morality: when Bush the elder called Dukakis a "Liberal," spitting out the word like an epithet, and Dukakis sputtered and back-pedalled and denied it, sounding like a guilty man.
And the Democrats were lost. They've been running from the label ever since, letting the Republicans define liberalism without dissent.
Bill Clinton regained the White House for the Democrats with clear Electoral College wins but also popular minority votes (in part thanks to Ross Perot). He was the viable candidate for change, and after the crazy debt-funded government spending craze under Reagan and Bush, his fiscal responsibility message seemed to have appeal. Also not to be underestimated were his personality and intelligence. After fumbling for the first year or so, his working with Congress to balance the budget won him big points. But he was an anamoly, the only Dem in the Oval Office since Iran was holding American hostages.
Letâ€™s face it, the Democrats suffered under Clinton on the morality question when he was caught with Monica Lewinsky. (We won't talk about the extra-marital affairs of those self-righteous finger-pointers. The press sure didn't.)
Now it's 2004, and when people talk about morality in politics, they talk about the â€œsanctity of marriageâ€? and â€œpro-lifeâ€? stances and getting creationism taught in schools. And that defines "moral values" in politics.
Why are the Dems so wimpy? Today, â€œequal rights for allâ€? is not ever discussed as the moral issue it is. Graft in government is not considered a moral question. In our current political climate, lying is considered â€œspinâ€? and the press signs off on it. Educating our children is not considered a moral issue. Executing innocent people is not considered a moral issue. Killing 100,000 people in Iraq is not considered a moral issue. Economic justice and relief for the growing poor population in this country is not considered a moral issue. Preserving the fiscal integrity of our government is not considered a moral issue. Preserving liberty in our own land is not considered a moral issue. None of these things are considered moral issues. No, what passes for morality today is intolerance, greed, bigotry, divisivenessâ€”all expressed in loud voices of outraged victims.
The Democrats need to realize that they cannot roll over on these issues any more. They can't respond to these hammer blows to our society with sandpaper and duct tape.
Everyone wants sensible government. What â€œsensibleâ€? means, reasonable minds can disagree. But the Dems have lost touch with how to communicate with the heart of America. Dean knew it. Even Kucinich knew it. John Kerry seemed to realize it... kinda sorta ... too little, too late.
Itâ€™s time the Democrats focus not on whatâ€™s expedient or what's safe, but on whatâ€™s right.