The Values Gap

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Having written my first "Whither The Democrats?" piece more than 20 years ago and followed it with too many other whithering rants about the donkeys, I have little appetite this time to do it again. After all, the Democrats took flagrantly responsible stands on the two most important issues of the election: in favor of muscular multilateralism abroad and fiscal responsibility at home. John Kerry ran an honorable, if not entirely competent campaign, while the Republicans skimmed the outskirts of the acceptable with their nonstop negativity. And why give ammunition to oleaginous telecharlatans, like James Dobson of Focus on the Family, who have been puffing all over the airwaves since Nov. 2 demanding their pound of policy flesh?

And yet ...

The Democrats do have a problem. It was partly illuminated by the exit polling, in which 22% of respondents said they voted, primarily, on "moral values," and was reinforced by a subsequent Pew Research poll, in which the number rose to 27%.

The initial, simplistic analysis was that Kerry lost because voters in 11 states, including Ohio, rushed to the polls to oppose gay marriage. But according to Pew, "moral values" was about more than social issues. Straight talk was seen as a moral value, and as Karl Rove has said, Kerry's infamous "I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it" was the most damaging 11 seconds of the campaign year. Nearly 1 in 4 of Pew's "moral values" voters cited the "personal qualities" of the candidates. And 17% cited "traditional values" like "the way people live their lives." In other words, nuance surfing and windsurfing and Kerry's diffidence about his faith were as damaging to Democrats as homosexuality and abortion. But blaming Kerry avoids the real dilemma. The Democrats have lost a good slice of less educated, less wealthy white Protestant and Catholic voters. Their economic issues are not nearly as compelling as the Republicans' religious appeal. There is a good reason for that, and it has to do, oddly enough, with a reality oft cited by Democrats and ignored by Republicans: the middle-class squeeze. Most "values" voters are the "average" folks John Edwards was talking about throughout the campaign: Mom and Dad both working, spending less time with their kids and falling behind economically. The Democrats address only the economic part of the equation. But most people—rightly—do not believe that a President can do much to stem the outflow of manufacturing jobs. Universal health care seems a pipe dream too. Indeed, Kerry's offering a $1,000 reduction in health-care premiums and a $4,000 tuition tax credit while he also promised to cut the budget deficit sounded like political flimflam.

George W. Bush promised practically nothing except faith and strength. But religious faith is the implicit Republican solution to the personal traumas of the middle-class squeeze—the fact that overworked parents are scared to death that their unsupervised kids are taking life lessons from the sex, drugs and weirdness spewing from their televisions and computers. Liberals scoff, but the balm that comes with being part of a religious community—the Bible study, youth groups, choirs and, yes, the moral absolutes that often accompany such communion—is real and comforting, unlike the promise of complicated and expensive government programs.

Kerry, like many other Democrats, never truly understood this reality. He did not bother to visit the Southern Baptist Convention or any other fundamentalist group to say, Look, we're going to disagree on some issues, but there are lots of things we have in common, and I want to hear your point of view. He did not take a "listening tour" through rural Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi; he simply ignored the South. When Whoopi Goldberg lewdly compared the President to a body part in her southern hemisphere, Kerry—who was in the audience—came onstage and said entertainers like Goldberg represented "the heart and soul of America." He did not criticize the mayor of San Francisco when he broke the law to perform gay marriages. He condoned late-term abortions. He had nothing to say about Janet Jackson's Super Bowl breast flash. Unlike Al Gore, he did not even give a speech supporting faith-based social programs. To religious conservatives, he seemed a secular extremist. The Democrats have paid a heavy and honorable price for their support of equal rights—first for African Americans and now for homosexuals.

But they have also been enthralled by the most intolerant of their interest groups. The liberal hostility to funding faith-based social programs—which are provided mostly by poor black and Latino congregations who need the financial help—is a witlessly secularist reaction against some of the most successful antipoverty efforts in the U.S. The liberals' defense of abortion beyond the first trimester has no moral rationale unless the life of the mother is at risk.

Their full-throated embrace of freedom of speech ignores the social pollution caused by the arrant commercialization of the culture. If Democrats cannot concede even these points and show a real appreciation for the values of faith, they will have a hard time winning national elections anytime soon.