November 03, 2004

The Third Debate Revisited

One reason I've found the results of the election so depressing is that--as many analysts have pointed out--"moral values" turned out to be one of the deciding issues of the campaign. It's one thing to lose an election because, in a time of uncertainty and international crisis, a bare majority of the people voted to stick with the incumbent; I would have found such an outcome depressing, given how little I think of President Bush's handling of foreign policy, but understandable. It's quite another thing to realize that one of the main factors in the president's victory was his staunch opposition to gay rights.

As Amy Sullivan and other writers have written, the rise of the Christian right has raised an important question: how should Democrats handle the questions of religion, faith, morality, and values? I'm an agnostic on this question, I have to admit. On a purely personal level, I was always impressed by the way Bill Bradley kept his 2000 campaign almost completely secular--he even refused to end his speeches with meaningless phrases like "God bless America." Then again, I think this is a losing strategy for Democrats, and I have no problem at all, say, with the way that Barack Obama used religious language in his 2004 convention speech. The key, I think, isn't for Democrats to toss religious language into their speeches, but to define the party's larger aspirations in moral terms (as Obama did), to frame economic issues as questions of values, to run candidates who are comfortable using the language of values, and to portray issues like gay rights as matters of basic human decency--not as topics to be avoided.

On a broader level, however, I think that a lot of analysts (and candidates) have been blind to questions of religious faith--and that one of the most high-profile events of the campaign may deserve reexamination in that light. Back in October, here's how I would have summarized my thoughts about John Kerry's decision to mention Mary Cheney--the vice president's lesbian daughter--in the third presidential debate:

  • It's a little unseemly for a presidential candidate to bring the child of one of his opponents into the debate, especially if he's discussing her views on a controversial issue without knowing precisely what she thinks.
  • Mary Cheney isn't just an innocent private citizen, however: she's the chair of her father's campaign. And Dick Cheney has been happy to draw attention to his daughter's sexual orientation when it furthered his goal of appealing to GOP moderates. That mostly makes up for the concerns I just expressed.
  • Even so, I'm a little wary of Kerry's motives. The innocent explanation is that he was nervous about the issue--likely to be a net minus for a Democrat these days--and wanted to give himself some cover by mentioning a Republican. The less seemly explanation is that he wanted to remind evangelical voters about Mary Cheney's orientation, which bordered on an appeal to bigotry even if Kerry didn't share in the bigoted views in question.
  • The net result is that I'm slightly uneasy with Kerry's invocation of Mary Cheney, judging it in isolation: in an ideal world, candidates wouldn't do things like that, though Kerry's decision was at worst a minor transgression and--more likely--was handled awkwardly but innocently.
  • The response by the Cheneys, however, was patently offensive. I'd have sympathized with them if they'd said that their daughter was a private cititzen and asked Kerry to leave her out of it. Instead, as Josh Marshall wrote, they denounced Kerry using "criticisms coded in sexual language," calling his words "cheap and tawdry" and attacking him for using "a crass, below-the-belt political strategy to attack the vice president's daughter." The Cheneys, in short, hinted very strongly that homosexuality was a horrible thing, appealing to the worst instincts in potential voters. I thought that they were trying to do damage control in the evangelical community, and that their method was more offensive than anything Kerry had said.
  • My strongest reaction, though, was that the whole issue was a distraction. Kerry cleaned Bush's clock in the debates, so Karl Rove and company decided to create a mini-controversy that would distract the press and the public. The Republicans largely succeeded in this: for a week after the debate, reporters discussed the Mary Cheney incident in far more detail than they recounted the substance of the debate.

I think most of this analysis still stands--for many voters, the Mary Cheney incident was a mini-controversy and a momentary distraction, a triviality which served mostly to throw Kerry off his guard. Looking back, however, I don't think the incident was nearly as peripheral as I'd believed. It wasn't just an attempt to create a distraction or do a little damage control, but part of a systematic effort to keep homosexuality and gay rights front and center in the minds of conservative potential voters, to address the issue in morally indignant terms, and to remind conservative voters of the divide between them and John Kerry. When the Cheney incident was viewed in isolation, it was possible to see the Republicans as some sort of "victim"; combine the incident with anti-gay push polls and rarely reported comments by the Bush campaign, to name just two small examples, and you see a far more sinister pattern.

Kerry, I suspect, was blind to this whole issue, just as most analysts were. I, for one, assumed that religious conservatives were already behind Bush and that a minor incident like this would have essentially no impact; now that the election is over, I see the Cheney incident as one part--not a huge part, admittedly, but a significant one--of an overall effort to keep conservative potential voters riled up on the issue of gay rights.

In an odd way, the rise of the so-called "moral values" issue reminds me of the September 11 attacks. On September 10, 2001, I could have told you that there were radical Islamic terrorists who'd love the opportunity to attack the U.S., but the nature of the threat--and the extent to which war had already been declared--had never really sunk in. On November 1, 2004, I knew that analysts loved to talk about a "culture war," that demographic changes had brought about the rise of a significant voting bloc whose values I didn't share, and that there was a risk that some of the rights and freedoms won since the 1950s would be trimmed back if the right took over the judiciary. I viewed the culture war as a peripheral part of the election campaign, however--something that could tip the scales in a close election, but that wasn't one of the campaign's main fronts. Now I see that the "other side" in this "culture war," if we want to use divisive terminology like this, already knew what kind of struggle it was involved in, and won an important victory in a key engagement while people like me were looking the other way.

I worry a little about using military terminology in this post. In some ways, I think that the country is less divided than it appears and that the ubiquitous dichotomy between red states and blue is both simplistic and artificial. (I also realize that plenty of people would find my September 11 comparison inflammatory.) Moreover, I have a hunch that there's going to be a backlash against the anti-gay, anti-choice right wing: plenty of moderately conservative suburbanites will end up voting against the more radical leaders of the Republican party in the years ahead, even though they haven't before. My biggest worry, however, is that the only thing that can mobilize this backlash is a series of dramatic conservative victories, and that by the time the counter-mobilization begins, there will have been too much damage to set things back the way they were.

Posted by Ed at November 3, 2004 09:13 PM

I know there has been a lot of blathering about "moral values", and I see many linking that to the gay marriage issue. Have you seen any drill-down on this moral values category? Could it also include the flip-flopping (as a matter of integrity/honesty)?

The weirdest thing to me was the ability of Rove to make so many people believe that on any issue they could "believe" Bush but not "trust" Kerry.

Posted by: Taleswapper at November 4, 2004 09:51 AM

I'd love to see more detailed exit polling data on this question. I'd really like to know more not just about the specific issues that fell under the "moral values rubric" (and motivated the voting bloc we're starting to hear about so much), but also about who--demographically--was part of that bloc. (My feeling is that the issue cut into the Democrat's traditional advantage among women, senior citizens, and Hispanics, and perhaps also among African-Americans.) To what extent are the votes of "values voters" up for grabs? To what extent would a well-articulated Democratic message that spoke to moral concerns be able to compete for the presidency? How important is it to have candidates who make it clear that they share the values of marginal voters and who aren't part of an East Coast cultural elite? To what extent was the rise of the "values voter" a one-time occurrence, sparked by uncertainty in the world, a president popular in conservative religious circles, and an abundance of gay marriage referenda?

My hunch is that even if--as I hope--the rise of conservative values reached its high mark this year, Democrats can play better to the population on these issues. They won't win over the evangelical right, but they can swing some voters who are now wary of them for cultural reasons. (This is especially true if they nominate a candidate like Bill Richardson or John Edwards--someone who isn't a Republican lite, but who doesn't come across as an out-of-touch elitist.)This year, the Democrats assumed that they would win if the debate came down to domestic policy, and that the key to the election was American foreign policy. But their domestic policy approach was just to list positions where their views were more popular, and their foreign policy sometimes looked like a list of grievances about the president. (As Mark Schmitt very aptly put it, the key wasn't just what candidates said about the issues--but what the issues said about them.) The key to 2008, and the years beyond, will be to articulate our program for the country as part of an overall vision, a vision that speaks to ongoing cultural concerns about the country's future without betraying the liberal values that the Democratic party has always believed in.

Posted by: Ed at November 4, 2004 12:00 PM
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