Posted on March 01, 2004 in Washington Watch

Early in this primary election season, then candidate Howard Dean warned that, if Democrats were not careful, Republicans would attempt to turn this election into a mandate on “gays, God and guns”. What, of course, Dean was suggesting, in shorthand, was that if Republicans were faced with setbacks in the Iraq war and in the economy, they would try to shift the national debate to what are loosely defined as “values” issues.

Dean was right. As events of the past few weeks have demonstrated, Democrats have reason to be concerned, lest the 2004 election become a contentious national debate on issues like “gay marriage” or some variation of the equally divisive abortion debate.

After a few court decisions set off a virtual explosion of gay marriages across the United States, President Bush announced that he would support an amendment to the United States Constitution that would, in effect, ban the practice. This practically guarantees that the issue will be debated for at least the next several months.

When pressed last week to define their position on this matter, the two leading Democratic candidates, still in the race, first addressed the question in hedging legal terms and then attempted to shift the discussion back to more comfortable territory. This election, they asserted would be about the war, the economy and the truthfulness of the Administration. So while the President was allowed to cast his position as a defense of traditional values the Democrats found no clear way to project their position in a values mold.

The response of these Democrats worked well with their faithful. It remains to be seen, however, how it will play with the small but important group of swing voters who will, in all probability, decide the 2004 elections.

The problem is that for a number of decades, with only a few exceptions, Democrats and liberals have appeared to surrender the discussion of values to Republicans and conservatives. Democrats, as a party, became identified with economic programs and social causes without defining a coherent values agenda that tied together their programs and causes.

It was Ronald Reagan who defined the Republican program and, for many Americans, the national values agenda in the 1980s. An event during the 1984 presidential election provided a classic example of the one-sided Republican/Democratic debate over values. At the event, both President Reagan and his Democratic opponent Walter Mondale spoke before an Italian American audience. The speech of Walter Mondale, whose vice presidential running mate in that election was Geraldine Ferraro (an Italian American Congresswoman), was only applauded seven times. And that was the seven times when he mentioned Ferraro’s name.

The rest of his speech was a dry litany of Democratic programs and promises of better pay for teachers, increased health care, etc. Reagan, on the other hand, began his presentation noting, “My grandmother, like yours, came to this country with nothing more than her hopes and her dreams for a better future. She worked her fingers to the bone to provide for her children and grandchildren…” By the time he was only a few minutes into his speech Reagan had won the values debate and the Italian American vote.

In 1992 Clinton learned this lesson and, therefore, infused his campaign with a broader values vision that focused on “opportunity, community and responsibility”. In the end, voters were willing to forgive then candidate Clinton’s personal failings because he spoke to their values.

Now Democrats face the challenge of recapturing the values debate from a Republican President who will attempt to portray them as out of touch with ordinary Americans on issues like gay marriage, prayer in the schools and abortion.

What Democrats will need to do, of course, is find a way not to allow the election debate to take place solely on those issues while casting their positions as part of a broader vision that respects the fundamental American values of equal rights, personal freedom, tolerance and the needs of hard working families.

Democrats may have received some help during the past week from the U.S. Catholic Conference (U.S.C.C.), the policy arm of the American Catholic Church. Last week the U.S.C.C. issued its scorecard noting Senators’ votes on issues of importance to the Catholic Church. The Senators were scored overall on 24 issues. On the scorecard Senators were divided into those who vote Pro-life (that is those opposed to abortion) and Pro-choice (those who support abortion rights). It was interesting to note that most of the Democrats on the list who supported abortion rights received the overall highest scores, in many cases 22 out of a possible perfect score of 24, with the only two negative marks being related to abortion. Republicans, who voted with the Catholic position on abortion, on the other hand, largely received scores of only two or three out of 24, since they opposed the Catholic Church’s position on almost every other issue including the death penalty, immigrant rights, support for infant and childcare programs, etc.

A key question then that Democrats must deal with in this election is whether they will allow Republicans to define the nature of the values debate or whether they will attempt to claim that mantle for themselves broaden the discussion and in doing so appeal to those American voters for whom values count.

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