Politics & Policy

The Politics of Silence

Democrats don't want to talk about certain things; neither do Republicans.

EDITOR’S NOTE:

This article appears in the August 23, 2004, issue of National Review.

The delegates in Boston believed that John Kerry will be our next president. But they were a disciplined bunch, and they did not ratchet up their demands on the candidate. Instead, they went along with his strategy of not embracing their positions, or any positions, on social issues or the war.

Neither Kerry nor John Edwards pledged to defend abortion rights in his convention speech. At the three previous Democratic conventions, that pledge was made by either the presidential nominee, the vice-presidential nominee, or both. Kerry not only refused to utter the word “abortion.” He did not even use the euphemism “the right to choose.”

Other convention speakers were almost as reticent. Kerry’s daughter Alexandra allowed that “we want our children . . . to control their own bodies.” New York congresswoman Louise Slaughter, who has devoted much of her career in the House to abortion rights, had a line about it. But for the most part, the speakers, and especially the prime-time speakers, followed the ticket’s lead in not mentioning the subject. Even Nancy Pelosi. The convention also shied away from the topic of judges. Blocking Bush’s judges is a top priority of the delegates, but Al Gore was the only major speaker to discuss the issue.

Kerry was coy on same-sex marriage, too. He spoke in political code: “Let’s never misuse for political purposes the most precious document in American history, the Constitution of the United States.” The delegates understood that he was talking about the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment, but it’s unlikely that many voters did–which appears to be what he intended. Other convention speakers were reportedly told not to mention same-sex marriage, or the amendment. Not even Barney Frank defended gay marriage, exactly; he said only that gay couples should have a way to make legal commitments to each other.

Silence reigned on guns, as well. Clinton mentioned the assault-weapons ban, which is due to expire in September. The rest of the speakers ignored the topic.

The media have regarded social issues as a great Democratic strength and Republican weakness. Yet on all the traditional social issues, the Boston Democrats were defensive. They will not compromise on policy: Kerry and Edwards voted against even recognizing that assaults on pregnant women have two victims. But they are much more eager to talk about their religiosity and patriotism than about their policy views. (“We welcome people of faith,” said Kerry.) The only social issue where the Democrats were aggressive was embryonic stem-cell research, which doesn’t concern as many voters as the other issues, in part because it confuses them.

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Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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