Monday, Feb. 07, 2005

The Democrats

A few days after the Democrats' November defeat, Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings suggested that the party needed a "come to Jesus" moment. His colleagues seem to have taken him literally. Former Indiana Representative Tim Roemer, who is running for chairman of the Democratic Party, could be heard arguing that "Jesus talks more about the concern for the poor" than he talks about gays and abortions. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi said a good place to start off the Social Security debate is to consider "how we honor our fathers and our mothers." Senator Hillary Clinton gave a speech praising faith-based programs and reminded everyone that she is "a praying person."

President George W. Bush won 78% of the vote among the one-quarter of the electorate that is white evangelical Christian, and he took 52% of the Catholic vote, which Al Gore won in 2000. So in the past three months, Democrats have been agonizing over how to reach more religious voters. House Democrats have organized a 20-member faith committee that will design messages that emphasize the moral dimension of Democratic policies. The Democratic National Committee is considering creating a center for religious outreach that would focus on increasing turnout among regular churchgoers, mirroring Republican efforts. The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, will sponsor events around the country to demonstrate how Democratic policy aligns with faith.

Clinton offered some suggestions along those lines last week when she addressed abortion-rights supporters in Albany, N.Y., marking the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. While affirming her view that women should continue to have the right to choose, Clinton urged Democrats to support measures to reduce the number of abortions — encourage abstinence among the young and force insurers to cover contraceptives — and surprised some by saying the goal was not just making abortions rare but eliminating them altogether. She even sought to get on the right of Bush on the issue by noting that abortions have risen in eight states under his presidency.

Clinton is not a lonely voice in her party. Senate Democrats last week called for increased funding for contraceptives and more education about morning-after pills. But much of the proposed repositioning among the Democrats has more to do with marketing than with changing the party's traditional stands on social issues. Central to the efforts is a linguist, George Lakoff of the University of California, Berkeley. He says Democrats keep losing elections because Republicans have framed moral issues about gay unions, for instance, with clever phrases like "defense of marriage." In discussions with Democrats in Congress, Lakoff and Jim Wallis, a left-leaning evangelical author, have advised officials to talk about how their faith informs their politics, from peace to environmental stewardship to economic justice. Wallis has suggested that when the Bush Administration releases its budget Feb. 7, for example, Democrats argue that it is a "moral document" and, as such, expected cuts in Medicaid funding violate the biblical tenet to support the poor.

The Democrats, Wallis says, need to shed their reputation as the party of "secular fundamentalists" and return to their roots. Liberal ministers like Martin Luther King Jr. led the civil rights movement. The first born-again Christian President was Jimmy Carter, and Bible-quoting Baptist Bill Clinton embraced faith-based initiatives before Bush did. But the party's voice on that front has sometimes been tentative. John Kerry's campaign was worried enough about values to hire a religious-outreach task force but then ignored many of its ideas, including having Kerry speak at an evangelical-Christian college, talk at a religion writers' conference and give a speech about faith early in his campaign. Postelection, some Democrats say they're not sure this faith talk is necessary. "We can't match them, O.K.," political consultant James Carville has said of the Republicans. Other Democrats point out that a majority of Americans are with them on hot-button issues — favoring some restrictions on abortion but no federal ban and supporting some kind of union for gay couples, if not necessarily a federally sanctioned one. But the biggest risk for the party is to come off as insincere. Religious voters might like the music, but they're unlikely to be seduced by it as long as Democrats stick to their core positions.