Politics & Policy

The Democratic Dialectic, The Democratic Problem

The future of a once-great party.

The Democratic dialectic since Nov. 3, 2004, goes something like this: a) Moral values mattered a lot to Americans, and they said so. Nancy Pelosi, for example, was heard quoting from the Book of Matthew on national television after the Democratic defeat of 2004. b) Then, we find out moral values really meant a takeover of the country by the far right or evangelical right or fill-in-the epithet. Maureen Dowd, for example, wrote the president “ran a jihad in America.” c) Then, as some time passed, other journalists weighed in, writing that moral values were not in play in the election because either the polling on the question was not solid (Dick Meyer in the Dec. 5 Washington Post) or because Americans always cared about the issue (Christopher Muste, one week later in the Washington Post). Nice work if you can get it.

Let’s try this novel interpretation of what moral values meant in the 2004 elections: They were important not because one poll said so but because, by my count, at least three polls have said so. Moreover, what the American people meant by moral values was–lo and behold–”moral values.”

With war at a boil in the Middle East, corporate scandals rocking Fortune 500 companies, and the home-state of the Democratic nominee for president declaring gay “marriage” a legal right, it is hard to imagine that so many have tried to claim moral values were not important to voters last November.

The Democrats–and those who have tried to discount the role of moral values in the November election–tried to emphasize two things in this past election: the bad economy and the badly run war. Well, the economy, an honest look demands, was not as bad as the Democrats made it sound; and the war was not being run as badly as the Democrats characterized it. People knew this, which is why the state that lost the most jobs since 2000, Ohio, delivered President Bush his victory and saw black voters turn out for the President in twice the proportion they turned out for him nationwide. It is also why over 50,000 voters registered for the first time there on the issue of gay marriage, and why an amendment to bar gay marriage there passed so overwhelmingly–as it did everywhere it was on the ballot.

People did care about moral values in the November election–whether they always do or not does not change that fact. The war, and the character of the commander-in-chief people want to fight that war, are part of the moral values equation too. And, it is worth keeping in mind that the war–which the Democrats opposed–was a moral issue that goes to the heart of our defense of liberty and the support of our soldiers. War is always a moral issue, and the Democrats got it wrong this time. So are the use of rhetoric and the character of a campaign matters of morality. When the Democrats trotted out labels against the White House and the president with analogies to Lenin or Nazism, and when John Kerry said that the Radio City Music Hall fundraiser that used gutter language spoke to the soul of America, or when Michael Moore was given a seat in a presidential box at the Democratic convention, people took note of those values as well–and voted on them.

In the end, it is not really debatable what happened in this election. Values mattered. And as President Clinton realized long ago, when it comes to national elections, values very well may matter most. He may not have governed by the values we agree on, but he understood how to run a campaign and, at least, speak to values (even if he could not live by them). President Bush knew how to do both, John Kerry did not even know how to speak to them.

In the end, then, if the Democrats and pundits want to discount moral values as a major reason for Bush’s reelection, they are free to do so; people are always free to be wrong in our country. But it will not aid in the understanding of what the Democrats need to do to overcome permanent minority status in this country. Their selection of their next Democratic National Committee chairman will tell the country a great deal: Do they truly believe in the greatness of a once-great party led by people of high honor and character who did not shrink from our nation’s defense, or do they believe that John Kerry’s campaign was thematically correct on the essentials, just not loud or well-financed enough? If the Democrats choose their leader based on the latter choice, we may very well see a new party emerge that puts the current Democratic party out of business. It would be a sad end to a once-great party, but it may be a deserved end.

William J. Bennett is the host of the nationally syndicated radio show, Bill Bennett’s Morning in America, and the Washington Fellow at the Claremont Institute.

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